After nearly two decades of war, Afghanistan is verging on becoming a quagmire, if not one already. The conflict is America’s longest ever, has resulted in approximately 2,500 U.S. deaths, imposes a daily operating cost of $3 billion dollars, and has seen nine transitions of U.S. military leadership, the latest being that of Gen. Austin Miller. Though the mission has waxed and waned since 2001, the central protagonists—al-Qaeda, the Taliban, the U.S.-led coalition, and Afghanistan and Pakistan governments—remained consistent until 2015. On Jan. 26, 2015, Abu Muhammed al-Adnani, then ISIS’s public relations official in Syria, announced the formation of an Afghan affiliate known as the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP).
ISKP emerged following the merger of several groups aligned with the Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Defecting commanders and fighters, encouraged by ISIS’s wider caliphate-building project, joined ISKP with the intent to secure Afghanistan as part of a global ISIS caliphate across the so-called “Khorasan Province.” This notional geographic area encompasses parts of Iran, China, Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and Southeast Asia. The coalition initially interpreted ISKP’s Salafi ideology as irreconcilable with Afghanistan’s mainstream Sunnism, and mistakenly assumed that ISIS’s faddish appeal would make its Afghan affiliate merely a fleeting nuisance. However, after nearly three years of unprecedented counterterrorism pressure against ISKP—which included the coalition’s use of the largest non-nuclear bomb ever employed in combat, the GBU-43—the evidence indicates otherwise. I argue that if the coalition’s ongoing peace talks are able to broker a negotiated settlement with the Taliban, it is likely that large numbers of defectors will join ranks with ISKP, catalyzing a new trajectory of Salafi jihadism in Afghanistan.
That a negotiated settlement between Afghanistan’s government and the Taliban will emerge is debatable, and it is still unclear what the negotiations are designed to achieve. The potential outcomes, which range from power sharing to establishing spheres of influence to a de facto state under Pakistan’s penumbra, fail to attain an empirically and juridically sovereign Afghanistan. The confused purpose of negotiations is compounded by the lack of a coherent framework and uniform interests among negotiating parties. This is particularly true of the Taliban, a fragmented and multigenerational movement whose cleavages are ameliorated by shifting alliances designed to achieve mutual interests. Even if negotiations were to be successful, the Taliban would be unlikely to uniformly surrender. Negotiations will likely result in spoiling behavior for a variety of reasons, ranging from payment for continued fighting to the re-establishment of an Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan under Taliban rule.
However, were a negotiated settlement between Afghanistan’s government and the Taliban to be reached, it is likely a cascade of Taliban defectors will join other, more virulent and uncompromising jihadi groups including ISKP, as happened after Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami reconciled with the Afghan government in 2016. Although some Afghan officials seemingly assume a negotiated settlement with the Taliban will lead to the defeat of ISKP, the latter has expanded across Afghanistan at the former’s expense. The group’s resiliency is in part a function of its ability to recruit sympathizers from across the region, including child soldiers, as well as peel away members from other insurgent and terrorist organizations including the TTP and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).
The regenerative capacity of ISKP encouraged U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis to direct the coalition to “annihilate” the group in 2017. Before then, the coalition had merely attempted to contain it. Today, the coalition’s counterterrorism strategy is predicated on decapitating the group from above while disrupting it from below. The results of this multipronged approach have been significant. Lethal strikes, raids, and clearance operations have killed thousands of ISKP fighters, disrupted the group’s foreign donations and media operations, isolated members from leaders, and reduced the group’s territorial control. By mid-2018, the coalition’s clearance operations had forced ISKP from 9 of the 11 districts it had held in the eastern province of Nangarhar since 2015. In late 2018, the coalition also killed the group’s third leader, further disrupting its operational capabilities. The Taliban’s own offensives against ISKP have incidentally complemented the coalition’s strategy. On occasion, the Taliban has attacked ISKP and caused the group to overextend its personnel and resources. In August 2018, the Taliban counterattacked ISKP in the western province of Jowzjan, resulting in the deaths of 153 ISKP fighters, the injury of 100 more, and the capture of nearly 135. Over 200 remaining ISKP fighters surrendered to the Afghan Army citing fatigue related to simultaneous targeting from both coalition forces and the Taliban.
Surprisingly, ISKP continues to resolve and evolve. Even after the death of its third leader and capture of its capital in Nangarhar, the group executed a series of heinous attacks in September 2018 against schools in eastern Afghanistan including Kabul. The group exercises an expansionist strategy that capitalizes on weak governance, under-addressed grievances, and poor security to establish redoubts across not only Afghanistan, but the region. It has exacerbated territorial and ethnic flashpoints in Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Tajikistan to indigenize its agenda among marginalized Muslims and secular populations. It also capitalizes on social media and secure messaging applications to inspire, enable, and direct attacks abroad. In October 2017, for example, the U.S. Justice Department arrested three ISKP operatives who were in the final throes of executing attacks in New York.
Exactly what can account for ISKP’s resiliency is arguable. It is clear that the Afghan government favors lethal strikes, raids, and clearance operations against ISKP at the expense of consolidating gains after rooting out the group from its principal sanctuaries. Such reticence affords ISKP the time and space to consolidate and reorganize. This makes the unintended consequences of a negotiated settlement with the Taliban, namely the possibility of a deluge of defectors to ISKP, more troubling still. An influx of Taliban defectors to ISKP stands to enable the group to set the standard for Salafi jihadism in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future.
 Antonio Giustozzi, The Islamic State in Khorasan: Afghanistan, Pakistan, and The New Central Asian Jihad (London: Hurst & Company, 2018) p.180.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or Government.
Photo: Zabihullah Ghazi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.