Islamic State threatens long-term peace in Afghanistan

A recent surge in attacks by Islamic State Khorasan Province in Afghanistan, claimed or otherwise, suggests the terrorist group is intent on disrupting any long-term peace initiatives between Kabul and the Taliban. By Emran Feroz

By Emran Feroz

Overall violence in Afghanistan had abated somewhat as large numbers of both Taliban and Afghan national forces continued to informally observe a ceasefire called during Eid, which marked the end of Ramadan in late May. But on 30 May, a roadside bomb in Kabul killed a journalist and a driver from an Afghan television station and the Afghan franchise of the Islamic State – known as Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) – claimed responsibility.

On Tuesday 3 June, another attack occurred killing Mawlana Muhammad Ayaz Niazi, a well-known cleric who served as the preacher of the Wazir Mohammad Akbar Khan mosque in the heart of Kabul. Niazi’s murderers are unknown, but in this case, too, many believe that ISKP, which also hunts religious figures, was somehow involved. The surge of ISKP attacks suggests to many Afghan experts that the terrorist group is intent on disrupting any long-term moves toward peace.

Many of the most brutal attacks over the last few weeks appear to have been the work of the ISKP. One of the bloodiest occurred on 12 May, when at least 24 mourners were killed by ISKP militants at a funeral in the eastern province of Nangarhar. On the very same day, another gut-wrenching massacre took place in west Kabul. A maternity clinic run by Medecins Sans Frontieres was attacked by gunmen disguised up as security personnel and medics.

Twenty-four civilians were murdered while dozens were injured, including women and newborns. While no group took responsibility, many observers believe that ISKP was behind the attack, noting that this attack, like others committed by ISKP, targeted Shia Hazaras. A few weeks earlier, in late March, ISKP attacked a Sikh temple in Kabul’s old town, killing 25 members of the Afghan Sikh community.

Islamic State's franchise terrorism

While the "big brother" of ISKP, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, is largely known in much detail, its Afghan branch has remained shrouded in mystery since its first appearance in 2015. In a further perplexing twist, it would seem that there is barely any connection between the two. "I consider them separately, because of the geography as much as anything else," said Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.

Ruttig said many of these Afghan Islamic State militants act independently of each other, suggesting that negotiation could well prove impossible. "They don’t have to interact with each other. They are able to operate separately, while proclaiming attacks under one banner. That’s the whole idea of the Islamic State’s franchise terrorism," Ruttig said.

Afghan security officers leave after gunmen attack a maternity hospital in Kabul (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Gul)
Sowing mistrust between the Taliban and the Afghan government: after the horrific attack on the maternity ward in May, the government was quick to blame the Taliban, though no group took responsibility and some analysts, like Ruttig, thought the ISKP was much more likely responsible for the attack. "Obviously, the attack bears all the hallmarks of the ISKP. It doesn't make sense for the Taliban to have carried out the attack"

As a result, like many other observers of the Afghan war, Ruttig believes that despite a U.S. orchestrated plan for peace talks, long-term stability in the country appears far-fetched as long as terrorist groups like ISKP exist.

According to Waheed Mozhdah, a late Afghan analyst and writer known for his insight on Islamist militant groups, "war in Afghanistan will decrease but conflict and bloodshed will not vanish." Mozhdah himself became a part of his analysis when he was killed last November by unknown gunmen in Kabul.

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Appealing to the middle classes

A new report by the U.S. Institute of Peace suggests that the ISKP is laying the groundwork for ideological radicalisation, not just in rural, but also in urban areas in Afghanistan. Even if a final peace deal is reached between the Afghan national government and the Taliban, this is unlikely to stop. The report, by Borhan Osman, one of the leading experts on militant groups in the region, notes that many ISKP members have a middle-class, educated background and are from urban areas like Kabul.


"In contrast with their rural counterparts, who often step into the jihadist enterprise in the absence of promising normal career options, a significant number of those joining ISKP from the central urban areas (Kabul and the surrounding urban centres of Parwan, Kapisa and Panjsher Provinces) come from families that can be labelled 'middle-class'," Osman wrote. Many are non-Pashtuns who were radicalised in universities."In terms of educational performance, a remarkable feature found in about one-third of the ISKP members interviewed is their outstanding intellectual record," he wrote. "In addition to several professors of universities who recruited for ISKP, the presence in the Kabul cell of many 'A-graders' (awal-numra, those who topped their classes – usually of about thirty students – in annual rankings) and graduates gives it a distinctly elite character. A significant number of A-graders were drawn from the Sharia faculty. Others came from law, chemistry, engineering and literature departments, often in state-funded universities. Three universities contributed the largest number of recruits to ISKP’s ranks: Kabul University, Nangarhar University and Al-Biruni University."

ISKP tactics are also sowing mistrust between the two main parties to the conflict, the government and the Taliban. After the horrific attack on the maternity ward in May, the government was quick to blame the Taliban, though no group took responsibility and some analysts, like Ruttig, thought the ISKP was much more likely responsible for the attack. "Obviously, the attack bears all the hallmarks of the ISKP. It doesn't make sense for the Taliban to have carried it out," Ruttig said.

"The Afghan government is still exploiting Islamic State threat for its own benefit. This was apparent after the most recent attacks, when Kabul blamed the Taliban for the bloodbath and conducted new operations against them," said Zakir Jalaly, a Kabul-based political analyst. After the attacks in Kabul and Nangarhar, Ghani’s government claimed that both ISKP and the Taliban were the culprits. The Taliban denied any responsibility.

A stumbling block to negotiations

Indeed, according to Jalaly, there is considerable evidence to indicate that the Taliban took the fight against ISKP seriously and pushed them back in rural sites. At the same time, the government in Kabul is likely to regard ISKP as an unlikely bedfellow in its political battle against the Taliban, which, contrary to ISKP, is the largest and most organised insurgency in the country. Until today, no group has claimed responsibility for the Kabul hospital attack.

Moreover, the mere existence of ISKP is often blamed on the Taliban. Undoubtedly it will continue to be a stumbling block to any negotiations leading to peace or, as Mozhdah put it, "less conflict" in general.

For the moment, both the Taliban and the government are pushing ahead with plans for negotiations, with prisoner releases underway. In a statement, the Taliban ordered "all the Mujahideen to adopt special preparatory measures for the safety of our countrymen and not to attack the enemy in any place".

The government of President Ashraf Ghani welcomed the announcement, accepted the truce and also declared it would release hundreds of Taliban prisoners imminently. Concurrently, calls from politicians and civil society activists grew louder in demanding an extension of the ceasefire and the commencement of intra-Afghan talks.Unofficially, the former had already happened, but questions persist as to the durability of the goodwill of both sides, having warred against each other for two decades. In recent weeks, several attacks have taken place, including operations against Afghan security forces and at least one government airstrike causing civilian casualties.

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Very different ideologies

During the last months and years, both the Afghan government and the Taliban have also regularly reported how they defeated ISKP by clearing out whole districts. One day before the attacks, several ISKP key figures  were arrested by government forces in Kabul, according to government officials. Although some former Taliban members have joined ISKP, the Taliban themselves have been engaged in a large-scale conflict against the group, primarily due to ideological issues, the existence of which are often glossed over by those on the outside unfamiliar with Islamic polemics.

"The ideological hurdle between the two groups is still very high, which indicates that following a peace deal, many Taliban fighters are unlikely to want to defect to Islamic State," said Thomas Ruttig. Theologically, Islamic State is known for its foreign, imported brand of Salafist extremism, while the Taliban market themselves as native sons of the soil, heirs to Afghanistan’s deeply rooted, centuries-old Sunni Hanafi traditionalism.

Some observers believe that overall the ISKP is still a small, insignificant player in the country. But the fact remains that ISKP has not been eliminated, despite reports of over 10,000 of its fighters being killed since 2015. Generally, these have been caused by Afghan forces, U.S. airstrikes and the Taliban. "This demonstrates incredible resiliency, being able to consistently bring in new recruits and continue operating while losing members in such staggering numbers”, said Andrew Watkins, a senior analyst on Afghanistan for the International Crisis Group.

An unknown quantity

Estimates of the group's membership today still put their strength in the hundreds, perhaps even 1,000 remaining members or more. Nevertheless, there is reason to doubt those official numbers, especially those put forth by the Afghan government, which, according to many observers, has an opaque, problematic relationship with ISKP.

A few analysts have suggested that the Kabul government would benefit by keeping ISKP around in small numbers, using its existence to blame the Taliban for any given terrorist attack, suggesting a similar strategic relationship to the one between the Assad regime and IS in Syria. Others like Watkins say such theories amount to little more than "conspiratorial thinking, held together by grains of truth".

"We can't deny that the Afghan government has at times behaved very strangely toward ISKP fighters and commanders, arresting them alive and even treating them surprisingly well in custody," said Watkins. "But it is important to say any comparison of Kabul’s relationship to ISKP with Assad's regime to IS is strongly off-base. The Afghan government has devoted considerable military resources to its campaign against ISKP in Nangarhar, at times over the last five years even implicitly taking action that would clearly benefit the Taliban in rural areas of the province," Watkins underlined.

When it comes to the peace process, Watkins suggests that the terrorist group is interfering for ideological reasons. "ISKP has clearly become more active in direct response to the deal between the United States and the Taliban. In their own propaganda, they have decried the deal, labelling it as proof that the Taliban are the 'kufr' and infidels they have always accused them of being. In the months before February, ISKP did not claim a single incident in Kabul, but in the days leading up to the signing ceremony in Doha, the group resumed activity with a vengeance."

Emran Feroz

© 2020