Is ISKP an actual or a potential threat in Afghanistan?
When ISIS announced the emergence of ISKP (ISIS–K) in Afghanistan, the then Afghan government categorically denied the ISKP' presence in the country for a year, but after the revelation of ISKP activities and the killing of ethnic and religious minorities, the Kabul government not only confirmed the group’s presence in Afghanistan, but also used ISKP as a leverage in its policies. The Taliban followed exactly the same path after capturing the capital. At first, they denied the presence of the ISKP, arguing that the Taliban’s activities have left no room socially and ideologically for ISKP, but now the Taliban’s officials have admitted to the ISKP's activities, and are talking about cracking down the group. The fact is that ISKP is a potential threat in Afghanistan’s territory, which has become more serious following the politicization of the Taliban. Based on the ground developments, it is possible for three actors to use the ISKP’s card in the geography of Afghanistan.
By: Abdulrahim Kamel
Before the Taliban’s takeover of power, the presence of ISKP in Afghanistan was not as noticeable to the regional countries and the international community as it was to the Afghan people; because since 2014, the issue of US withdrawal and the rise of the Taliban’s diplomacy had been filling Afghanistan’s political space. This comes as ISKP had chosen Afghanistan as the center of its activities in South Asia at that time.
In terms of psychological warfare, ISKP was turned into a horrifying and powerful figure for the Afghan people, because all suicide attacks and brutal killings that other terrorist networks refused to accept, were inevitably attributed to the group. Psychologically, this issue showed ISKP as a powerful group in Afghanistan, and created an incentive for the group’s ideological supporters to become stronger.
Meanwhile, the former Afghan government played a double game with the ISKP. While the government was confronting severely with ISKP in some parts of Afghanistan, the evidence showed that the former government's security services were busy with providing military support for the group’s members in north parts of the country. There were also ISKP families in the Afghan prisons that had entered Afghanistan through the Pakistani border under the disguise of displaced persons.
Despite all these points, ISKP did not have a specific territory or front in Afghanistan over the recent years, and was focused on intermittent terrorist activities. ISKP emerged as a powerful and threatening force in Afghanistan’s political arena only when the US government was forced to leave the country.
Suddenly, the United States became so interested in highlighting ISKP that even carried out a drone operation in Kabul and killed all members of a family, including children, and then launched a massive media campaign as if it has destroyed a powerful operational team. But in recent weeks, the truth came to light, and the US government only expressed sympathy for the survivors of the attack and showed no other humanitarian response.
Now, the main question is how real the ISKP’ threat is in Afghanistan and how likely the group can turn itself into a serious threat for the region.
The ISKP’ actual threat
When ISIS announced the emergence of ISKP, the then Afghan government resolutely ruled out the group’s presence in Afghanistan until a year later. According to the government, the ISKP did not have the essential ideological and social background to attract the Afghan people. Later, when the terrorist activities of ISKP were intensified and the group began to kill the ethnic and religious minorities, the Kabul government not only admitted to the presence of ISKP, but also used it as a leverage in its policies.
The Taliban government also followed the same path after capturing Kabul. At first, they denied the presence of the ISKP, arguing that the Taliban’s activities have left no room socially and ideologically for the ISKP, but now the Taliban’s officials have admitted to the ISKP's terrorist activities. In recent weeks, the media has clearly published the Taliban government's confessions regarding the ISKP’ terrorist activities, including its repeated attacks in Nangarhar province.
Following the Taliban’s rule, the ISKP launched its terrorist operations with a powerful explosion at the entrance of Kabul airport, which left hundreds dead and wounded. The center of ISKP’ military and propaganda activities is in Nangarhar province, eastern Afghanistan. From the very beginning, ISKP declared Nangarhar province as its military base, and this province is witnessing numerous attacks and explosions every day since the formation of the Taliban’s government.
Following the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul, the group also attributes any military attack targeting its members to the ISKP, declaring that the military activities of other opponents, including the previous government, have now been completely ruled out. Given the views of ISKP and the Taliban towards each other, we here briefly enlist the last two weeks’ explosions and armed attacks in Jalalabad (the capital of Nangarhar Province) which is the headquarters of ISKP, to assess the ISKP’ potential threat:
On September 18 and 19, several attacks took place in Nangarhar province, which according to health officials of this province, killed and wounded many civilians. Exactly one day later, the ISIS' Amaq website claimed responsibility for the attacks, reiterating that it has killed about 35 Taliban members.
On September 22, five people were killed and three others were injured during an explosion and an armed attack in the city of Jalalabad.
On September 25, one person was killed and seven others injured in an explosion in the city of Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province. According to the wounded people’s account, the explosion happened just at the moment a Taliban military vehicle was passing.
On October 2, two Taliban members, two civilians and a child were killed in an armed attack in the third security zone of Jalalabad. After that, the Taliban claimed that it has discovered an ISKP base in a counter-attack, killing a number of ISKP members. It also added that a number of the Taliban fighters have been wounded while defusing explosives at the base.
On October 3, a local journalist and two Taliban members were killed and two others were wounded in an armed attack in the city of Jalalabad. (Tolo News)
Since ISKP considers Nangarhar as the center of its military activities, and the Taliban declare the military activities of other opposition groups throughout Afghanistan is over, this situation will be worrying if we attribute all the military attacks in Jalalabad to ISKP.
Overall, ISKP cannot be considered a serious threat to Afghanistan and the region. ISKP will be a serious threat to the region only when it certainly turns into a potential threat.
The ISKP’ potential threat
The ISKP is an extremist group which is active in South Asia, especially in Afghanistan. Following the Taliban’s politicization, this extremist group has a better chance than al-Qaeda to become a strong organization. There are three main factors that can make the ISKP as powerful as the Taliban, and enter it into the major regional games:
1- US and the scenario of strengthening ISKP
Today, the bitter reality of Afghanistan is that if there is financial and political support, the country has the potential to become a hotbed for formation of different ideological, political and military fronts. There are many extremist forces who have left the Taliban, al-Qaeda or other ideological groups, and are ready to join ISKP.
The United States has so far fought against the great powers of the region on the Afghan soil. To prevent the Soviet Union’s expansion, the United States fanned the flames of war in Afghanistan and stopped the Soviets there. The people of Afghanistan are still paying the price for this political game. Now, China is standing in the same position as the former Soviet Union was. The United States does not want China's big economic and political dreams to come true in the region. That is why the United States does not want to confine the battle field to Afghanistan. Washington seeks to include Central Asia in order to prevent the Chinese projects such as the "Belt and Road" or make them to be postponed for years.
This approach makes it clear that the United States intends to play a multiple game by using ISKP. It means that by strengthening and equipping ISKP and making the region insecure, the US not only can suspend the aforementioned projects, but also can impose the cost of supporting the Taliban’s government over the regional countries who are align with the group – the costs which will be devastating for those countries, as it was for the US. Now, the beginning of this game is clearly visible.
2- Taliban and the scenario of playing with ISKP card
The Taliban has achieved great political success in the recent years, and the joy of this success continues to encourage the group to play politics. If the sanctions continue and the international community, especially the United States, do not begin a political interaction with the Taliban, the group may enter a political game with the ISKP card. It is possible that after a series of military battles with ISKP, the Taliban decide to deliberately surrender a limited area in the far east of the country or areas near the Iranian border or even Badakhshan province to ISKP in a bid to pave the way for the presence of al-Qaeda there. As a result, the Taliban can seek ransom from the regional countries as well as the United States, while pretending that it is fighting the international terrorist groups on the behalf of the world. This is exactly the strategy that was adopted by the previous Afghan government.
3- Pakistan and the scenario of playing with ISKP card
Pakistan's game in Afghanistan is not over yet. Pakistan has always taken a strategic step to indirectly destroy the Afghan governments after their establishment. Pakistan nurtured the Afghan Mujahideen and then created the Taliban to act against them. Islamabad then brought the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to power in cooperation with the United States and destroyed it again by help of the new Taliban. Undoubtedly, after the establishment of Taliban’s government, Pakistan will once again create another group to fight the Taliban. Those who are not aware of Pakistan's policy towards Afghanistan and the region, will certainly oppose this assessment.
From this point of view, ISKP would be the most possible playing card in the hands of Pakistani officials, through which they can take concession from both the regional countries and Afghanistan. Following the expansion of ISKP along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, Islamabad can keep the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) busy for a while. Over the past four decades, Pakistan has been attracting the global and regional aid through playing the card of extremist groups. Therefore, continuation of this game on the Afghan soil will have great benefits for Pakistan.
ISKP has now a limited destructive effect, but it is a tremendous potential threat. The United States launched an inhumane game in Afghanistan and the region that will be paid for by the Afghan people and the regional countries. ISKP is a very effective playing card for the next game in Afghanistan. The Taliban have turned into a real actor and can no more be a playing card for other countries. Even Pakistan fears the day when the Taliban feel they are powerful and independent.
Countries aligned with the Taliban in the region focused all their attention to the disgraceful withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan, and thought that the defeat of the Afghan government would embarrass the United States in the region and the world. However, they did not pay much attention to the aftermath of Afghan government’s fall.