What ISIS-K Means for Afghanistan

The Taliban’s insurgency behind the bombing is a formidable challenge and a problem for American efforts to stabilize the country.

Two weeks had passed since the Taliban had ruled Afghanistan, and then the country was hit with its first terrorist attack. The suicide bombing at Kabul Airport on Thursday prompted finger-pointing. President Joe Biden, in a speech to the nation, said America would hunt down the perpetrators–members of the extremist group ISIS-K, which has taken root in Afghanistan over the past several years. The Taliban blamed the United States, not for the bombing but for failing to keep things safe at the airport, saying the bombing “took place in an area where U.S. forces are responsible for security.”

Now, the Taliban claims to be the government in Afghanistan. This means that if the Taliban wants to gain broad support from Afghans as well as the international community, it will have to face a major challenge: Protecting Afghans (and other foreigners) from terrorist attacks. It cannot blame the U.S. anymore for the country’s problems. The bombing gave us an immediate preview of how difficult that will be.

ISIS-K has been an obstacle for the Taliban for many years. Formally known as the Islamic State – Khorasan, it has existed since 2015, formed initially by the defection of disaffected members of various other jihadist groups in the region, including some former members of the Taliban. Initialy, the group had thousands of supporters and took control of small areas in the north and east of the country. The Taliban, United States, Afghan, and Pakistani security forces have relentlessly pressed the group to reduce its size and stature over the years.

It is also known for being resilient. One U.S. special agent once said that the U.S. had killed “five thirds” of ISISK’s personnel over several years. Since 2015, the group has lost four emirs to capture or death in operations conducted by U.S. and Afghan forces. Reports estimate that by 2019, 11,700 ISIS-K militants had been killed, 686 had been captured and 375 had surrendered.

ISIS-K tried to rebuild its forces after these losses over the course of 2020. These efforts met with mixed results, in part due to tacit cooperation between the U.S. military and Taliban forces in efforts to dismantle the group. Today, ISIS-K has a few thousand fighters and is considered to be degraded but still not defeated. However, there are reports that thousands of ISIS-K prisoner have escaped from Afghan penal facilities following the Taliban’s takeover.

Its resilience is due to the high level of motivation of its members, its network with other jihadi group that provide ISISK assistance and multiply it reach, its attraction for disaffected members (especially from Pakistan) and its ability to recruit individuals outside of the Afghanistan-Pakistan area, including from India. Its ability to attract experienced leaders and fighters from other groups, who are familiar with the area and how to survive there, is one of its key assets.

Before the United States began its withdrawal from Afghanistan, there was consensus that ISISK was a threat beyond Afghanistan’s borders, and had plans to attack the United States. Over the past five years, the combined efforts of the U.S. with others have rendered the group unable to carry out such attacks. However, U.S. intelligence estimates earlier this year suggested that if counterterrorism pressure were removed, the group might reconstitute the ability to attack the United States directly within 18 to 36 months.

Yesterday’s news clearly shows that ISIS-K, even though it is less powerful than before, still has the capability to carry out horrific attacks within Afghanistan’s capital. It does this for both terrorism and pragmatic reasons. Such attacks are designed to advance the group’s claims of being the “purest” among Islamic extremist groups, as well as to bolster its efforts to recruit and expand its ranks. ISIS-K continues to pursue its original transnational goals, and supports the Islamic State’s idea of establishing an Islamic caliphate worldwide. Its name, “Khorasan”, refers to the province it plans to establish to support its global ambitions.

ISIS-K is also a sworn enemy to the Taliban. They see the Taliban as a group of sold-outs who have abandoned the higher callings of a global caliphate to pursue their own goal of controlling Afghanistan. Calling them (among other things) “filthy nationalists,” ISIS-K has consistently sought to denigrate the Taliban and seize the mantle of jihad from its amir al-mu`minin (“Leader of the Faithful”), Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada.

For the Taliban, ISIS-K represents one of two immediate internal challenges to its writ as the new government of Afghanistan (the other being the National Resistance Front). The U.S. sees the Taliban’s rivalry as both a challenge and an opportunity in the group.

According to the head of U.S. Central Command, General Kenneth McKenzie, the U.S. has been providing the Taliban sanitized intelligence on ISIS-K threats in Kabul since Aug. 14. Further, he gave credit to the Taliban for having taken action on that intelligence, saying “we believe that some attacks have been thwarted by them.” So one opportunity is to build on this relationship of counterterrorism cooperation, at least insofar as it applies to the common enemy of ISIS-K.

The challenge is to decide how far you will go in allowing such cooperation, given the operational and political risks. The U.S. provided names of Americans and Afghans to Taliban checkpoints. This caused political turmoil at home. Critics claimed that it was putting these Afghans on a Taliban “killlist.” Another challenge is the Taliban’s cooperation with other jihadist groups. The most notable of these from a U.S. perspective is al-Qaeda, which retains a small presence in Afghanistan and close ties to the Taliban that neither group is likely to sever anytime soon.

So, the Biden administration faces a difficult decision about whether to continue to cooperate with the Taliban in counterterrorism. The focus will be on ISIS-K. McKenzie says that the Taliban have demonstrated a willingness to fight this terrorist group and have foiled numerous previous ISIS-K attacks in the capital in recent weeks. The Taliban’s security personnel in Kabul were not able to stop the attackers of yesterday’s attack. This highlights the group’s sophistication and illustrates the challenges the Taliban will face in protecting the country’s citizens, especially urban ones, in the future. This could be made more difficult by the likely addition of hundreds of escaped ISIS-K prisoners. This could also increase the United States’ threat profile.

Biden spoke to the nation Thursday and stated that “To those who perpetrated this attack, as well American harm as any other person wishes, we will not forgive.” The Taliban have done America wrong for many decades. We won’t forget.” Biden will never forget the Taliban’s actions, but he must now decide if he is ready to forgive them and work with ISIS-K against an enemy who wants harm for both America and the Taliban.