The Power of ISIS-K and the Perspective of its Role in Afghanistan

Published November 9th, 2021 - 11:58 GMT
Although a number of factors, including the withdrawal of US troops, political uncertainty, and the negative economic and social effects of the coronavirus epidemic, affected ISIS-K 's motivation to regain control.

By Farzad Ramezani Bonesh

The situation of ISIS-K

By declaring ‘Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – Khorasan Province’, ISIS-K officially began its activities in the territory of Afghanistan in 2014 and started its activities in the eastern and southeastern provinces, especially in Nangarhar province. The Afghan government claimed that ISIS-K was destroyed in 2019. In fact, this group has suffered heavy casualties, but In mid-2020, ISIS-K elected Dr. Shahab al-Muhajer as its new Emir.

Since early 2021,they tried to reclaim territory, recruit new members and started the propagate efforts. In the first two months of 2021 alone, the group claimed responsibility for 47 attacks.

Although a number of factors, including the withdrawal of US troops, political uncertainty, and the negative economic and social effects of the coronavirus epidemic, affected ISIS-K 's motivation to regain control.

According to various estimates, there are between 2,200 and even 4,000 ISIS fighters are active in various provinces of Afghanistan such as Samangan, Jawzjan, Badakhshan, Helmand, Sar-e-Pul, Takhar, and Kunduz. Nangarhar and Kunar are the main ISIS bases in eastern Afghanistan.

Although according to the Taliban’s announcement, dozens of ISIS-K fighters have joined the Taliban and the group has arrested 250 ISIS-K members across Afghanistan, attack to the Shiite mosques in the north of the country and Kandahar have been one of ISIS-K’s major efforts. Recently, the residents of Uruzgan province announced that the ISIS-K flag has been raised.

The recent escape of thousands of ISIS-K members from prison has also benefited the group. The group is well placed to take advantage of tensions between the Hanafi Taliban and the Salafi Afghans. The ISIS-K is continuing to recruit thousands of Afghan Taliban and hardline Salafis, urban youth and fighters from Pakistan’s tribal areas. Al-Muhajer (ISIS-K leader) is an urban warfare expert and one of the former commanders of the Haqqani Network. There are still some speculations about the support of ISIS by foreign forces.

Even some former members of the Afghan army, the former government intelligence service and former Afghan spies are joining ISIS for revenge or income. Even the Taliban's internal rivalry between the Haqqani network and the powerful Kandahar faction led by Mullah Baradar could lead to support for ISIS-K. By suicide bombings, assassinations and ambushes at security checkpoints, the ISIS-K has created the most deadly periods in Afghanistan. ISIS-K  has several thousand member fighters, and by taking advantage of any chaos, returning old fighters and recruiting new forces, it can carry out atrocities against the Shiite and Hazara communities, and blatant crimes against humanity and other inhumane acts.

The ISIS-K has intensified its attacks since the Taliban took the power. Among the benefits of the Taliban’s taking power for ISIS-K  are the release of dangerous ISIS-K elements from prisons, growing poverty, and so on. Operational alliance with other jihadist groups , and the recruitment of other jihadist forces and foreign fighters who have just arrived in Afghanistan are an opportunity for ISIS in Afghanistan. The expelling or resettling of fighters like Uyghurs by the Taliban would be an ideal opportunity for ISIS-K to recruit those dissatisfied fighters.

The relationship between the Afghan Taliban and ISIS-K:

At the beginning, the Taliban tolerated ISIS. But the caliphah of ISIS-K called the Taliban leader a stupid and said that the Taliban is an ethnic group. In fact, ISIS-K and the Afghan Taliban have officially declared war against each other. ISIS-K has the ambition of ​​dominating the world and establishing an Islamic state. ISIS-K describes the Taliban's adherence to the Hanafi religion as fanatical and considers the Taliban as infidels for several reasons. The circle of insiders is very limited in the eyes of ISIS-K, while, in the eyes of the Taliban, the circle of insiders is wider. The Taliban and ISIS differ in appearance and tactics. In fact, ISIS-K is both a threat and an opportunity for the Taliban. The ISIS-K will treat the Taliban more as a government actor to damage its credibility domestically and internationally.

The Taliban's focus on fighting ISIS-K also provides an opportunity for the group to demonstrate their commitment to Qatari and international commitments. The Taliban can use ISIS-K as a bargaining chip and pressure on other actors.

ISIS-K may even help the Taliban gain international support, including from the United States, and expedite the international recognition of the new regime in Kabul. The Taliban also appear to be blaming ISIS-K for any military attacks targeting members of the group, declaring that the military activities of other Taliban opponents (especially the National Resistance Front) have now become completely impractical.

The Taliban can even suppress some branches of ISIS-K in Afghanistan and tolerate the presence of some other ISIS-K members in the country. The Taliban do not want ISIS-K to take power in such a way that it has the potential to bring foreign powers into Afghanistan (to fight ISIS-K).

In contrast, the Taliban is still not a cohesive group and does not want to strengthen the recruitment of ISIS-K members from within the Taliban. There have been more than a few thousand foreign nationals in Afghanistan in recent years, many of whom remain unaccounted. In addition, the domestic and international space is still open for playing with the ISIS-K card against the Taliban.

ISIS-K’s outlook in Afghanistan

The two main negative and positive variables of the likelihood of further convergence of the Taliban and the opposition against ISIS-K  and ISIS-K 's hopes for those who break away from the Taliban could have a far-reaching impact on ISIS-K 's presence and influence in Afghanistan.

 Now ISIS-K is in a position of recruitment and Taliban factions can increase the ISIS power by joining it. In the case of the agreement between the Taliban and Opposition, the chances of the presence of ISIS-K could be reduced. In fact, any division and dissatisfaction within the Taliban will lead to a greater presence of the dissatisfy sector in ISIS-K.

In the meantime, the severance of ties with foreign terrorist groups is also a key condition for peace with the Taliban. ISIS-K hopes to attract the Taliban members by adopting a local approach and severing ties with foreign groups (between 15 and 20 small and large groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, Jaish-e-Muhammad, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi ,and…).

What is clear is that ISIS-K, unlike the Taliban, does not have access to safe havens in Pakistan. Therefore, the future of ISIS in Afghanistan largely depends on its ability to attract more members and attract a large number of people and joining of the extremist members of the Taliban. The Taliban leadership must compromise and prevent internal divisions by promising to create a more inclusive government.

The United States has warned that ISIS-K remains a "serious threat" and that the group could rebuild its capabilities within two years. The Taliban is trying to gain widespread support from ISIS-K by relying on former government intelligence equipment. Neighboring actors such as China, Iran, and Russia are also concerned about ISIS-K's rise to power in Afghanistan.

 However, the 83-member Global Coalition for the Defeat of ISIS-K is crucial to ensuring the permanent defeat of ISIS-K, including in Afghanistan. However, it should be noted that there are many doubts about the sincerity of the Taliban and their view of the extent of ISIS-K’s repression. However, in the absence of airstrikes, the Taliban may be able to neutralize the ISIS-K. In fact, ISIS is not a force that can significantly threaten the Taliban. But the Taliban's step-by-step approach and getting privilege from other actors and the international community and other actors to fight ISIS-K can also help the group to continue to play with the ISIS-K card so continuation of getting privilege.


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