Analysis

America Isn’t Ready to Fight the Islamic State in Afghanistan

The jihadi group’s continued rise has left the United States with only bad options.

By , a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut.
A boy walks through buildings damaged from fighting.
A boy walks through buildings damaged from fighting in Shadal Bazaar, Afghanistan, on July 15, 2017. Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

The one clear advantage of the Taliban sweeping into power last month essentially unopposed was they seemed to spare Afghanistan more unnecessary bloodshed. But just as the Taliban ceased their own fighting, another brutal jihadi group began to unleash mayhem across the country. The Islamic State-Khorasan, the Islamic State’s Afghan offshoot, has launched at least a dozen terrorist attacks since the change of guard in Kabul.

One of those attacks struck Kabul’s airport on Aug. 26, which was packed with thousands of people at the time. More than 170 Afghans and 13 U.S. service personnel were killed. It was a classic terror tactic deployed by Islamic State-Khorasan to reintroduce itself to the global media, saying although the Taliban might have gone soft and reconciled with the Americans, Islamic State-Khorasan, as the true adherent of puritanical Islam, will not. U.S. President Joe Biden responded by using drones to kill people he claimed were the planners of the attack. The U.S. strike, however, did nothing to discourage the group from carrying out more attacks. A few days later, Islamic State-Khorasan targeted the Taliban and civilians in a spate of attacks in Jalalabad, the capital of Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar Province and a stronghold of the group.

Islamic State-Khorasan has emerged as a clear threat to Afghans, the region, and the West. Whether the U.S. government is prepared to combat this new threat is another question entirely. 

The one clear advantage of the Taliban sweeping into power last month essentially unopposed was they seemed to spare Afghanistan more unnecessary bloodshed. But just as the Taliban ceased their own fighting, another brutal jihadi group began to unleash mayhem across the country. The Islamic State-Khorasan, the Islamic State’s Afghan offshoot, has launched at least a dozen terrorist attacks since the change of guard in Kabul.

One of those attacks struck Kabul’s airport on Aug. 26, which was packed with thousands of people at the time. More than 170 Afghans and 13 U.S. service personnel were killed. It was a classic terror tactic deployed by Islamic State-Khorasan to reintroduce itself to the global media, saying although the Taliban might have gone soft and reconciled with the Americans, Islamic State-Khorasan, as the true adherent of puritanical Islam, will not. U.S. President Joe Biden responded by using drones to kill people he claimed were the planners of the attack. The U.S. strike, however, did nothing to discourage the group from carrying out more attacks. A few days later, Islamic State-Khorasan targeted the Taliban and civilians in a spate of attacks in Jalalabad, the capital of Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar Province and a stronghold of the group.

Islamic State-Khorasan has emerged as a clear threat to Afghans, the region, and the West. Whether the U.S. government is prepared to combat this new threat is another question entirely. 

U.S. counterterrorism experts are now asking themselves if there’s a way to contain Islamic State-Khorasan without aiding the Taliban and their chief sponsor, Pakistan. Some argue the Taliban might even be intentionally exploiting the Islamic States’ threat to better portray themselves as victims of terrorism—and potential combatants against it—rather than perpetrators. Very few experts seem to think collaboration between the West and the Taliban to take on Islamic State-Khorasan would be a good idea. 

“ISIS-K [Islamic State-Khorasan] is horrible. Enemies of all humanity,” said Bradley Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he focuses on U.S. defense strategy and policy. “But just because they are attacking the Taliban too, we should not delude ourselves regarding the murderous and misogynist character of the Taliban.” As the United States treats Islamic State-Khorasan as a threat, “the Taliban will benefit without having to make any concrete changes in the way it governs,” said Colin Clarke, director of policy and research at the Soufan Group.

There remain many logistical questions about how the United States can even effectively combat Islamic State-Khorasan in Afghanistan. Since withdrawing militarily from the country, Washington lacks a suitable full-scale base from which to carry out strikes or listening posts on the ground to gather intelligence. The Biden administration has said it will carry out over-the-horizon strikes from outside Afghanistan, but it’s not clear if it plans to use its existing Al Udeid air base in Qatar or rather prefer to establish one more close by in Pakistan or elsewhere in Central Asia.

Sources in Pakistan told Foreign Policy that the Pakistani security establishment would be happy to offer the United States a base for its counterterrorism operations so it can assuage U.S. concerns about Islamabad’s deep ties with the Taliban and China and mitigate any damage to its relations with the Biden administration. (In a huge diplomatic snub reflective of Biden’s view of Pakistan, he has not called Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan once since taking power.) In Washington, however, there is much resistance to trusting Pakistan. 

Some experts in Washington believe Uzbekistan and Tajikistan could offer more effective bases. “I think bases in Central Asia are preferable to bases in Pakistan, mostly because the Pakistanis have been duplicitous about their relationship with the Taliban from day one,” Clarke said. “I don’t think the U.S. can or should trust Pakistan’s [intelligence agency], which has played a double game for the past two decades. In Central Asia, the U.S. might still be at the mercy of mercurial leaders, but it’s a preferred alternative to dealing with Pakistan.”

There is also fear that under current conditions, Islamic State-Khorasan is poised to recruit and expand. It is estimated to have between 1,500 and 2,200 fighters, significantly lower than the Taliban’s estimated 100,000 fighters. But it has been preparing to lure defectors and swell its ranks. In the first four months of this year, the group carried out 77 attacks, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, and more recently killed U.S. soldiers to win laurels among the more extremist Taliban fighters, who feel let down by their parent organization. Members of other ethnic militias might also prefer to join Islamic State-Khorasan to fight their historical enemy: the Taliban. Moreover, many of the group’s incarcerated leaders were freed as the Taliban unlocked prison doors ostensibly to free their own but also let out competition. “Pul-e-Charkhi prison, which is near Jalalabad, and Bagram [Parwan Detention Facility] were flooded with [Islamic State-Khorasan],” said Rahmatullah Nabil, Afghanistan’s former National Directorate of Security chief. 

Douglas London, a former CIA counterterrorism operations officer for South and Southwest Asia and author of The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence, said the absence of Afghan and U.S. intelligence units on the ground had already emboldened the Islamic State, and it should only be expected to expand. “While [Islamic State-Khorasan’s] present manpower and resources limit its ability to threaten the Taliban on the conventional battlefield, current circumstances favor its underground, asymmetrical campaign to embarrass and destabilize the new government in areas where [Islamic State-Khorasan] retains strength, such as Jalalabad and Kabul,” London said. Islamic State-Khorasan has growing appeal “to the Uzbeks, Tajiks, Uyghurs, and Turkmen in Afghanistan’s north and the Central Asian republics,” London added. 

One consensus developing among former U.S. operatives in Afghanistan and analysts is to acquire on-the-ground intelligence in Afghanistan by paying and arming familiar former allies, including ethnic warlords and political figures, such as former Afghan President Hamid Karzai and former senior leader Abdullah Abdullah, who remain in Afghanistan. “The errant drone strike in Kabul in late August demonstrates precision strikes are only as good as the intelligence that directs them,” Clarke said on the need to look for and establish new listening posts. 

If there is anyone who seems not to be deeply rattled by the rise of Islamic State-Khorasan it is the Taliban, perhaps because both emerged from the same madrassas in Pakistan’s tribal areas. On a trip to Afghanistan in 2016, I visited Jalalabad just a day after Islamic State-Khorasan launched its first terror attack. Top Afghan security officials, including the top general in charge of Afghanistan’s internal defense, told me Islamic State-Khorasan fighters were from the same milieu inhabited by the Taliban. “They are the same people. Just the flag has changed from white to black,” the general said. Most Islamic State-Khorasan members are former disgruntled members of the Afghan Taliban or the Pakistan Taliban, known as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. Most were recruited from areas straddling the Pashtun belts of the two nations. 

“Daesh is not a threat,” Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid told a local news network. “No one supports them. Second, our combat against Daesh was effective in the past, and we know how to neutralize their techniques.” A Kabul-based Taliban leader speaking on condition of anonymity seconded Mujahid’s claims, telling Foreign Policy it might take some time before the Taliban can rein in the group but it will. “The Taliban has not yet established its security apparatus everywhere, and that is the gap Daesh is exploiting,” he said. “But we will finish Daesh from Afghanistan. Wait and watch.”

Anchal Vohra is a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut. Twitter: @anchalvohra

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