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After the Loss Of Its Stronghold In Parts Of The Middle East, The Islamic State Fixed Its Eye On The Afghanistan-Pakistan Region - Part One And Two



By Daud Khattak

October 1, 2018

The Islamic State (ISIS) temporarily managed to win over disgruntled elements among the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban alongside youth from the remote districts in Afghanistan’s east soon after restructuring and renaming itself Islamic State in Khorasan (IS-K) in 2014. IS-K’s initial victories against the Taliban and the Afghan government on both the battle and propaganda fronts rang alarm bells in world capitals, particularly among the weaker neighbouring Central Asian states.

The group’s emergence and battlefield successes also panicked the Afghan Taliban, the insurgent group monopolizing violence in Afghanistan. For a while, their status as the sole non-state actor to take on the Afghan government and the international community in that country was challenged.

However, over the passage of months, IS-K’s propaganda lost its appeal among common Afghans and Pakistanis as the group mostly reversed its battlefield gains in eastern Afghanistan. One of the prime reasons for these reversals is the group’s incompatibility with the region.


The majority of IS-K’s senior leadership was removed from the scene within months of the groups’ emergence in eastern Afghanistan in the second half of 2014. Hafiz Saeed Khan, Rauf Khadim, and Shahidullah Shahid, the founding members, were killed in drone strikes and Special Forces operations within a year of its announcement.

The latest blow was the elimination of top commander Abu Saeed Orakzai, aka Saad Arhabi, who was killed in a joint operation by Afghan and coalition forces in eastern Afghanistan in late August. Arhabi was the fourth IS-K chief killed since the group’s establishment.

Apart from the eastern Nangarhar province, Jawzjan in Afghanistan’s north was reckoned as the other stronghold of the Syria-based group. However, droves of IS-K fighters and commanders, both local and foreign, surrendered to the Afghan government in early August after a year-long siege by the Taliban. The surrender came less than a month after the killing of IS-K’s top leader, Taliban renegade Qari Hekmat, in a US airstrike in the same area.

The rapid successive losses of senior commanders have kept IS-K from developing into a well-coordinated group like the Afghan Taliban despite its fighting skills and extreme brutality.

Taliban Challengers

Apart from the Afghan government and the coalition troops, the IS-K’s biggest challenge on Afghan turf is the Taliban, the group that has monopolized violence since its ouster from power in late 2001.

The Afghan Taliban draw their inspiration from the life and struggle of Mullah Muhammad Omar, the self-proclaimed Amir al-Mu’minin (Leader of the Faithful), who led the Taliban movement in the mid-1990s and seized Kabul from the warlords to establish a hardline regime in the country.

IS-K, on the other hand, shows allegiance to Abu Bakar Baghdadi, the leader of its ISIS parent organization, with little regard for the Taliban’s spiritual chief.

Religious differences apart, the two groups are the antithesis of one other politically as well. An IS-K victory is reckoned as a loss for the Taliban, who would never allow an “alien” group to set up shop in an area they have retained and kept under their exclusive influence for the past 17 years.

More than the Afghan government or the coalition forces, it is the Afghan Taliban who are resisting the IS-K presence in both the eastern and northern parts of Afghanistan.

A Promise That Never Materialized

Apart from intra-group grievances over the distribution of authority and other petty disputes, many commanders and fighters from the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban joined IS-K in the hope of gaining access to the huge financial support they believed (or were made to believe) was coming from ISIS.

Even local thugs and criminals joined the group in some remote towns and villages to gain power and get access to the cash. At the very beginning, unemployed youth who joined the group were offered better monthly payments than Afghan policemen or soldiers, with the promise of still more in the days ahead.

However, hopes began to fade with the defeat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. IS-K would have continued to flourish, at least in areas where the group had established a foothold in the early stages, had they received sufficient sums from their Middle East-based patrons to support their jihadist activities in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. But that channel dried up very early on.

Sectarian And Cultural Sensitivities

Afghan society is dominated by the relatively moderate Hanafi school of thought, while IS-K, like its ISIS parent organization, is a strict follower of Salafi ideology. That ideology takes its religious interpretation directly from the Hadith (the sayings of the prophet Muhammad) and the Qur’an rather than from any other individual or school of thought.

Afghans are a traditional tribal society and they cherish their Islamic rituals, which incorporate local customs and traditions. IS-K’s puritanical version of Islam sees tradition-enhanced Islamic rituals as Bid’a (heretical innovation), and the punishment is death.

It is against this backdrop that IS-K has always been regarded by Afghans as a foreign force that has little regard for Afghan culture, customs, or traditions. One example is Afghans’ gathering together to pray for the soul of a deceased person or their visiting of graves and shrines. These rituals have no place in IS-K’s Salafist ideology.

War Fatigue

The ongoing conflict, which has spanned nearly four decades, has not only shattered the fabric of an otherwise tightly woven Afghan society but also generated a profound hatred of war among the population.

Notwithstanding the war economy and politics of violence that benefit a fraction of Afghan society, the majority of common Afghans are fed up with fighting. Gone are the days when Afghan citizens garlanded the Taliban, the (then) newly emerged group, as they entered Kabul in the mid-1990s. Those gestures, in any event, indicated less a love of the Taliban than a hatred of warlordism and ongoing internecine violence.

After experiencing the brutalities of the Taliban regime and the post-9/11 Taliban insurgency, Afghans have no love lost for any new group. They have no inclination to welcome IS-K fighters, whose ISIS-style violence in eastern Afghanistan quickly antagonized the local population. Some even took up arms against them.

Regional Odds

Unlike the Taliban, IS-K has no supporters or sympathizers among Afghanistan’s neighbours or indeed anywhere in the region. All those neighbours expressed serious concerns over the emergence and initial battlefield successes of IS-K. They have increased their own internal vigilance against IS-K supporters and sympathizers, which inhibits flows of money and weapons to the group’s fighters.

Last year, Pakistani security agencies claimed to have arrested several individuals on charges of recruiting for IS-K in Syria and Iraq. China has tightened control by supporting the construction of a border base in the Badakhshan province for the Afghan security forces. Russia’s concern about IS-K’s spread into the Central Asian republics is evident as well. Iran played a major role in driving ISIS out of Syria and Iraq and is equally vigilant about its threat in Afghanistan.

Sensing the danger IS-K represents, the Afghan government and the Taliban have actually joined hands to thrash the group. The recent Taliban assault on the IS-K stronghold in Jawzjan province in Afghanistan’s north had the tacit backing of the Kabul government. Hundreds of IS-K fighters and commanders later surrendered to Afghan security forces, bringing an end to the group’s control of that region.


While IS-K has claimed responsibility for spectacular bombing attacks, mostly against soft civilian targets, to make headlines in the local and international media, it has only a slim chance of taking over areas beyond what it already has in the remotest districts of Afghanistan’s east.

However, a continuation of the conflict, with regional players pursuing their own interests, would not only prolong IS-K’s life but would create conditions allowing other small groups to emerge that could threaten regional peace in the longer run. A joint, concerted effort by all players is the best option to take on the IS-K scourge head-on, not only for peace and stability in Afghanistan but for the broader South and Central Asian region together with Russia, China, and Iran.

Daud Khattak is a Pakistani journalist who works as Senior Editor for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Pashto language Mashaal Radio. He recently completed a documentary film on Pakistan’s pre-Islamic past entitled Vanishing History.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family




Islamic State's Future in Afghanistan – Part II

By Daud Khattak,

November 19, 2018

Islamic State in Khorasan (IS-K) emerged in Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan, on the border of Pakistan’s volatile tribal region. While IS-K’s terror tactics forced local communities to submit to the group, many people, particularly the young, were lured by the group’s promise of “Islamic social justice” and a potentially steady stream of cash flow from the Middle East-based “Caliphate.”

Banking on this promise, IS-K not only seized several remote districts in Nangahar, but infiltrated urban centres targeting educational institutions. It has gradually expanded its presence into the less secure parts of the comparatively peaceful northern region.

A significant help to IS-K as it expanded its operations from the east to parts of the north was weaker state authority.  IS-K, like the Taliban, can easily exploit the internal weaknesses of the US-backed government in Kabul.

Although operations by Afghan and international forces and rival militant groups (the Taliban in this case) have considerably weakened IS-K, it is far from wiped out. The devastating attacks on Afghan civilians in Kabul in the past few months prove that it is alive and kicking.

Undermining Of State Authority

Not only has the central government failed to cope with the Taliban threat, but the presence of warlords, jihadist militia leaders, and powerful men poses a direct challenge to its authority.

Weak authority is causing Afghans to lose faith in the state, a collapse of trust that pushes them towards militant non-state actors touting promises of social justice and rewards after death. The stories of Taliban justice, despite its brutality, are often repeated as a contrast to government corruption and as a remedy for social disparity or insecurity.

Warlords and strongmen who challenge the writ of the state wear away people’s trust in the state’s authority. A few months ago, the powerful governor of Balkh province challenged President Ashraf Ghani and defied his orders to step down. More recently, a few powerful men locked the offices of the election commission after their disqualification from the October 20 parliamentary elections.

Unemployment and Corruption

Although unemployment and corruption are very common issues facing governments in backward countries, Afghanistan suffers the most from these problems because the Afghan population is disproportionately young.

According to 2014 figures from the Afghan Central Statistics Organization, almost 84% of the Afghanistan population is younger than 40. Youth under 15 make up almost 47%, while those between 15 and 39 make up 37%.

Unemployed youth are the most vulnerable segment of the society. They fall prey to IS-K propaganda that criticizes injustice and government corruption and promises a better future. The widening social status gap coupled with unemployment and insecurity has increased frustration within impoverished communities that are then more willing to internalize IS-K and Taliban propaganda.

The majority of those joining IS-K are unemployed youth, both the educated and the illiterate. While the uneducated join the militant group for religious reasons and prospects for a better life after death, the educated enter its ranks to express their anger over the lack of social justice, lack of jobs, and lack of action against corrupt officials and mafia lords.

Ethnic And Sectarian Divisions

The nearly four decades of war have weakened the fabric of Afghan society. The divisions were very much visible during the April 2014 presidential election pitting President Ashraf Ghani, who came forward as the representative of the majority Pashtuns, against Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, who was supported by mostly the ethnic Tajiks.

Despite their being partners in the National United Government, Ghani and Abdullah are believed to remain at odds. Their offices promote members of their respective communities, the Pashtuns and the Tajiks. This animosity affects the efficiency of the government and the authority of the state.

While Afghanistan has remained mostly unaffected by sectarian divisions, recent attacks claimed by IS-K on Shiite places of worship and cultural centres seem to be a deliberate effort to deepen sectarian divisions and incite violence in Afghanistan. This would conform to the strategy used by IS in Iraq and Syria.

IS-K has failed (so far) to spark Shiite-Sunni armed rivalry in Afghanistan, and the ethnic conflict does not expand beyond politics. But continuation of ethnic and sectarian differences bolsters support for militant groups like IS-K.

Foreign Meddling

Since the era of anti-Soviet jihad, Afghanistan has been a playing field for foreigners, particularly the country’s stronger neighbours. Those neighbours not only meddle in Afghanistan to secure their economic, strategic, and national interests, but also to outsmart their opponents.

There were times when Iran took sides with the then Northern Alliance against the Taliban. Pakistan is still supporting the Taliban, not only to keep tabs on anti-Pakistan Afghan nationalists but also to keep arch rival India away from its western border. India earlier supported the Tajik-led Northern Alliance against the Taliban. Foreign meddling has fuelled the insurgency and insecurity in Afghanistan. Its continuation may help newly emerged groups such as the IS-K to find safe haven in the comparatively unstable and insecure parts of the country.

Regional Rivalries

Afghanistan’s two powerful neighbors, Pakistan and India, are struggling to outclass each other on Afghan. While Afghan authorities point accusing fingers at Pakistan’s intelligence agencies for supporting the Taliban and Haqqani Network, Pakistani officials are anxious about rising Indian influence in Afghanistan, which they perceive as an encirclement of their country.

The net result is a prolonged proxy war benefiting the Taliban, IS-K, warlords, and groups whose survival depends on a continuation of the conflict.

Afghanistan’s second-closest powerful neighbour, Iran, has recently increased its contacts with the Taliban. Reports emerging from Kabul over the past year suggest the two parties have closer ties than is generally believed.

Pakistan and Iran’s direct or indirect support for the Taliban is keeping the insurgency alive, and the continuation of fighting contributes indirectly to the growth of groups such as IS-K.

India and Pakistan, along with Russia and the US, are nowhere near a point of consensus on how to end the nearly four decades of fighting in the landlocked country. The two big powers are now entering the stage of swapping foes and friends. While America’s Cold War ally Pakistan is warming up to “red infidel” Russia, the US is getting closer to Russia’s friend and Cold War ally India.

The shifting of goalposts and continued support for proxies not only exacerbates the conflict but provides an environment in which militant groups can survive and even thrive.


The continuation of the Afghan conflict has provided a favourable environment for the emergence of groups that are more lethal and cutting-edge than their predecessors.

The 1979 Russian invasion and subsequent years of anti-Soviet jihad created several mujahideen groups (“holy warriors”), whose ethnic and ideological differences and struggle to get a maximum share of the Afghan pie led to civil strife following the withdrawal of Russian forces. The years of internal conflict converted the mujahideen into powerful groups of bandits and warlords. Their infighting in the late 1980s and early 1990s led to the emergence of the Taliban militia, which invited al-Qaeda and other foreign fighters who planned the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the US. The post-9/11 Taliban insurgency created such groups as the Haqqani Network and the Pakistani Taliban, while the latest group to emerge on the Afghan front is the IS-K.

While IS-K is far away from being able to seize and hold even the remotest cities, the continuation of fighting would help expand its power base.

In an interview with CBS News, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said that “we are under siege” because 21 international terrorist groups are operating in Afghanistan. The continuation of war not only attracted militant groups from abroad but created splinters of the splinters, both in Afghanistan and in the adjacent tribal areas of Pakistan.

Daud Khattak is a Pakistani journalist who works as Senior Editor for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Pashto language Mashaal Radio. He recently completed a documentary film on Pakistan’s pre-Islamic past entitled Vanishing History.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family