ISIS' Low Risk Enterprise in Afghanistan


ISIS' Low Risk Enterprise in Afghanistan

Milo Comerford

19 Feb 2016

The United States views the emergent ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan as distinct from the 'Caliphate' in Iraq and Syria. The group has little to lose, and lots to gain, in the war-torn country.

In January 2015, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, ISIS' official spokesperson, announced the group's "expansion" into the "lands of Khorasan," (a term from Islamic history that encompasses a large segment of South and Central Asia), in a seven-minute audiotape entitled, "Say, Die in Your Rage!"

A year later the United States designated a group which it labelled ISIL-Khorasan, or 'ISIL-K' for short, as a 'Foreign Terrorist Organization.' The US accused the group of carrying out suicide bombings, small arms attacks and kidnappings in eastern Afghanistan, and claiming attacks in Karachi, Pakistan.

This was an interesting move for the US. To some extent it epitomises a State Department trend of designating remote and largely-independent elements of the ' archipelago' that has declared allegiance to ISIS. Sinai Province, better known by its former name, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, is one example.

However unlike these groups, no prior organisational presence existed in Afghanistan or Pakistan that pledged allegiance wholesale (although the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has said that it is now fighting as part of Khorasan Province). Rather 'ISIS-Khorasan' is made up almost exclusively of disaffected members of the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, many of whom were protesting the suspected death, later validated, of former leader Mullah Omar.

ISIS is having a disproportionate effect on the Afghanistan conflict.

This characteristic in some ways makes Khorasan Province more like ISIS affiliates in Libya and Yemen: disparate fighters united under an ideological banner who are not recognised as being distinct from ISIS by the international community. An ISIS affiliate like Nigeria's Boko Haram, by contrast, has a distinct founding history.

In Afghanistan, ISIS is in somewhat of a limbo. Its adherents are neither merely inspired by ISIS, like many lone wolf attackers in western countries, nor truly directed by the group. 'Operating' in Afghanistan is low-risk for the so-called state's leadership in Iraq and Syria. It has the potential, however, for significant long-term reward.

A group of around a thousand fighters held together by little besides their ideological opposition to the Taliban and the Afghan state, as well as allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, are having a considerable effect on the conflict in Afghanistan. Largely contained in Nangarhar province in the east, ISIS-aligned forces there have gained a reputation for extreme brutality, reminiscent of their overseers in Iraq and Syria. Reports have emerged of fighters searing the hands of enemies in vats of boiling oil and pouring pepper into their wounds.

Such actions have caused some residents and local militiamen to demand the return of the Taliban, a request duly obeyed with the movement dispatching as many as a thousand "special forces" to the area to defeat ISIS. Dozens have been killed in ensuing clashes between the groups.

ISIS is not a primary driver of conflict in Afghanistan. The Taliban remains a much more dangerous force. In 2015, the country's UN Assistance Mission attributed 82 civilian casualties to ISIS and ISIS-affiliated commanders, but more than 4,000 to Taliban elements. This figure did not include any of the thousands of civilians killed during the brief capture of the provincial capital of Kunduz in September.

But the conflict in the country is worsening. The number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan during 2015 were the highest recorded by the UN since records began in 2009. ISIS is making use of a growing political and legitimacy vacuum in Afghanistan to grow its advanced propaganda operation, rather than gain territorial control. This allows it to inflate its presence in Afghanistan, giving it a disproportionate impact on the conflict.

Taliban operations against ISIS "objectively coincide" with Russian interests.

Videos of training camps, including two named after leaders of ISIS' predecessor groups, 'Sheikh Abu Omar al-Baghdadi' and 'Sheikh Abu Musab al-Zarqawi,' show ideologically indoctrinated child soldiers known as 'Cubs of the Caliphate' training in mountainous terrain. The 'Voice of the Caliphate' radio station broadcasting across eastern Afghanistan was bombed by US aircraft in February.

Beyond this local impact, the increasing boldness of ISIS' Afghan chapter also has geopolitical implications. In an irony undoubtedly not lost on Russia, Moscow has found itself supporting the Taliban in its contest against ISIS, with Zamir Kabulov, Russia's special envoy to Afghanistan, recently saying, that "Taliban interests objectively coincide with ours," and that it is "very important" that "the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban have said they don't recognize [Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi as the caliph." Although this rhetoric may trigger alarm bells in some portions of the international community, it may well provide the required impetus for promised peace talks with the Taliban due to take place in Islamabad in the first half of 2016.

Regime forces are also becoming more proactive in their targeting of ISIS elements, perhaps recognizing them as a potentially more insidious threat than a Taliban movement which has at least expressed ambivalent interest in returning to the negotiating table. Afghan officials are hopeful about a series of recent 'joint operations' against ISIS militants in their Achin district stronghold, which have recaptured 25 villages under ISIS control, where security forces have been encouraging tribal militias to reject the group.

President Ashraf Ghani at the 2016 World Economic Forum promised to "bury" ISIS, calling for action against the group at regional and international level. But in Afghanistan's case, despite the group's global allusions, it will likely be at a local level, through engagement with communities and new platforms for meaningful negotiation, that ISIS' growing influence will best be undermined.

ISIS' brand is reliant on a perception of success in its 'caliphate' project. Whilst setbacks in Afghanistan would be unlikely to tarnish this reputation, the more 'fronts' the group can claim to maintain, the harder it becomes to discredit this narrative.   

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