IS muscle-flexing in Afghanistan threatens Taliban and wider region

By: Cvete Koneska

Just over a year after it came to power in Kabul, the Taliban’s authority is now being undermined as it struggles to contain the IS-K, a regional affiliate of the Islamic State group. The group has expanded its presence in the north of Afghanistan and stepped up attacks across the country’s borders. The escalation comes four years after the defeat of IS in the Middle East, raising concerns over a possible resurgence of the jihadi group in Central and South Asia. 

While IS-K, an ultra-radical, Salafi Islamic movement, is intent and capable of mounting attacks on Kabul, having grown in strength since the US withdrawal in August 2021, it does not yet appear to have the manpower and resources to dislodge the Taliban. Its professed aim is establishing a transnational Islamic caliphate, with Afghanistan seemingly envisaged as a foundation stone for the project. But the group’s current strategy looks to be focused on entrenching itself across longstanding strongholds in eastern and northern Afghanistan and extending its influence beyond the country.

Analysis of data generated by Dragonfly’s TerrorismTracker database indicates that the Taliban is finding it hard to stem the IS-K insurgency. The group has averaged 14 attacks per month since the Taliban took control, more than double the figure under the US-backed Afghan administration. And the operations have also tended to be more lethal, resulting in 138 fatalities in October 2021 and 168 in April this year. At the same time, actions against targets in Pakistan and up to and across the northern border have mounted too, numbering 29 and 32 in the respective years since the Taliban came to power – representing 5 – and 10-fold increases on the pre-takeover period.

Given the upsurge in its militant activity, the US will likely seek to thwart the IS-K through counter-terrorism operations – with or without the support of the Taliban. Washington is concerned that the insurgents will use their increasing territorial gains and influence in Afghanistan to destabilise the wider region and threaten American interests globally, as al-Qaeda once did. Regionally, as well as witnessing a rise in cross-border attacks, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Pakistan have been subject to IS-K propaganda aimed primarily at recruiting their nationals into its ranks.

Prior to the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, IS-K had been severely weakened by Afghan and US counter-terrorism operations. But with the American withdrawal, several thousand released prisoners and some former members of Afghan government forces joined IS-K and built up its military capacity. More recently, their number has been bolstered by disaffected Taliban fighters, at least some of whom believe the Taliban authorities are not sufficiently Islamic. IS-K is now the most active anti-Taliban group in Afghanistan, estimated by some observers to number around 4,000 combatants, twice its pre-US withdrawal size. 

With the Afghan economy struggling under the weight of sanctions and humanitarian crises, the Taliban has limited resources to counter the growing IS-K threat, especially since the group focuses its operations on distant, thinly-populated areas of the country, attacking towns but refraining from trying to control them. And when the Taliban attempts to confront them, the insurgents retreat into remote valleys, re-emerging when the enemy withdraws.

The tactics are very similar to those used by the Taliban to great effect in its insurgency against the former Afghan government and its US allies, with the emphasis, similarly, on low-level, hit-and-run attacks. IS-K will need to significantly expand its fighting force and gain support among ordinary Afghans in order to hold areas in which it is currently active. Up to half of the group’s combatants are foreigners which estranges it from locals. But the proportion of Afghans joining up might increase as the predominantly Pashtun Taliban are alienating other ethnic communities by excluding them from power, purging a number of their commanders, and becoming ever-more repressive. One possibility is that non-Pashtuns will turn their backs on the Taliban and take up with IS-K. 

While the IS-K does not yet pose an existential threat to the Taliban, it is making life very difficult for its bitter rival and could prove to be an even bigger thorn in its side. If IS-K begins to exercise control over a wider territory, this would allow it to train more non-Afghans who may then return to their home countries in the wider region to launch attacks, further complicating relations between the Taliban and its neighbours. And should more international humanitarian agencies return to Afghanistan, there is a reasonable chance that IS-K might target their Western staff, potentially sabotaging desperately-needed relief efforts and undermining Taliban legitimacy.

The Taliban is well aware of the domestic and regional instability IS-K could wreak, not to mention the possibility of triggering renewed international military intervention in the country if it begins conducting operations in the West. Given the threat IS-K poses, the Taliban engages it whenever it can. But the insurgents’ hit-and-run tactics mean it is hard to land knock-out blows. Beyond the battlefield, the Taliban appears to be trying to weaken IS-K influence in its heartlands, with strong suggestions that it has been behind the killing of Salafi clerics sympathetic to the IS-K – though it is unclear what impact this is having on the ground.

Looking ahead, funding will have a bearing on the military effectiveness of both sides and could determine the course of the conflict. Given the perilous economic plight of the country, the Taliban has not been able to finance its fighters to the level it was able to in the past. And while there is some evidence that IS Central has been subsiding IS-K, there are questions about how it will raise money once that source of cash runs out. 

In time, the warring parties may both face funding constraints, limiting their fighting capacity. Should that happen, the conflict seems set to become a drawn-out, attritional affair. The Taliban would likely continue to contain the insurgents, particularly if the latter are blunted by US counter-terrorism operations. The West and Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours will hope they can be kept at bay. Yet given the IS-K’s transnational aspirations, the group will probably remain a threat to the wider region and perhaps further afield for some time to come.

Cvete Koneska is Head of Advisory services at Dragonfly, the geopolitical intelligence service

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