Opinion | Biden Didn’t See the ISIS-K Threat in Afghanistan Until Too Late

When President Biden announced in the spring that America would withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by the fall, he spoke of terrorism threats — but never mentioned Islamic State Khorasan, or ISIS-K, the Islamic State’s affiliate in Afghanistan. In threat assessments about Afghanistan as late as April, the director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, barely brought up ISIS-K. On Aug. 20 Mr. Biden mentioned the group, in a speech on the last-minute effort to evacuate stranded U.S. citizens and vulnerable Afghans after the Taliban had overrun Afghanistan.

By then it was too late. On Thursday, ISIS-K struck with a deadly suicide bombing at the Kabul airport, killing at least 170 Afghan civilians and 13 U.S. service members.

Savagery is not new to this group. In May 2020, it targeted a maternity ward in Kabul, killing 24 people, including women and newborns. But the targeting of U.S. military personnel who were not in a battle zone has raised ISIS-K’s status as one of the foremost terrorist groups in the region.

It is also unlikely to be deterred, despite U.S. drone strikes targeting suspected members shortly after the airport attack. The group has attempted to attack the airport again with suicide bombs and rockets in the last few days.

The Taliban’s triumphant return to Kabul has emboldened jihadist groups around the world. Al Qaeda’s affiliates, which pledge allegiance to the Afghan Taliban, see the Taliban’s rise as a triumph of global jihad and a new era of Islamic rule, while other jihadist groups, including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in Syria and the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, have proclaimed the Taliban as a model to follow.

But ISIS-K isn’t impressed. With the airport attack, timed amid the chaotic American evacuation, it hopes to one-up the currently jubilant Taliban and its allies. Competition among these jihadist groups is a critical feature of politics in the region. It means more attacks, more instability and, crucially, an even more complicated challenge for the United States and U.S. allies, if they hope to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a haven for armed groups.

Armed groups — even those that subscribe to similar ideology — try to outperform one another by carrying out more audacious attacks, either in quantity or shock value. That allows them to distinguish their brand, poach from rivals or gain resources from potential supporters.

The ISIS-K airport attack needs to be seen in exactly this light, particularly as the group has used competition to its benefit in the past. When it emerged in 2015, ISIS-K channeled the jihadist euphoria over the violence and territorial conquests of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria by appealing to disaffected cadres belonging to the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban.

Though all these groups — including the Taliban — are committed to the concept of jihad, ISIS-K played up the purity of its ideology, fiercely rejecting the Taliban’s nationalist goal of governing Afghanistan. What’s more, the Taliban subscribe to a Sunni ideology, Hanafism, which has long alienated a crucial minority of Salafist Afghans in rural and urban areas who regard the Taliban as impure.

This has allowed ISIS-K to build alliances in the first few years since its formation with groups in eastern Afghanistan that consider themselves rivals to the Taliban — and appeal to recruits with promises of stepped-up violence and broad-reaching jihad.

But by 2019, U.S. airstrikes and Afghan military operations, as well as the Afghan Taliban’s political and military onslaught, diminished ISIS-K. It lost leaders and rank-and-file fighters. The territory under its control shrank, and battlefield allies switched sides, as the perception of the Taliban’s impending return to power in Afghanistan gained steam.

Still, ISIS-K didn’t give up. It positioned itself as a Taliban-rejectionist movement, caricaturing the Taliban as craven for allying with Pakistan and cutting deals with the U.S. government. It targeted the Taliban’s anti-Salafist clerics, including those in Pakistan. By mid-2020, even as it lost rural territory, it possessed an urban network.

It also regained thousands of its imprisoned fighters through jail breaks, once after a complex attack and most recently when thousands of prisoners were able to flee from Afghan prisons after the Taliban took control of Kabul. Since then, ISIS-K has targeted the U.S. military and vulnerable Afghan civilians in and around Kabul, demonstrating to supporters and rivals alike that the Islamic State is still in the game of not just local but also global jihad.

The airport attack also demonstrated that ISIS-K has no qualms in exploiting divisions within the Taliban. There are murmurs inside the group that some Taliban battlefield commanders are unhappy with the softer public line of the central leadership, including the announcement of a postwar amnesty for Afghans who worked with Americans and the Afghan government, the desire for an inclusive government incorporating political rivals and religious minorities, and the decision to completely hold fire against the United States until the pullout.

ISIS is positioned to leverage this base of support.

The persistence of ISIS-K threatens other terrorist groups. Al Qaeda, in particular, will feel the pressure because ISIS-K killed Americans — something it has not managed to do this year. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, which lost cadres to ISIS-K some years ago and could do so again, is worried as well. Central Asian jihadists in Afghanistan may also hedge their bets, by developing an alliance with the Islamic State as insurance against abandonment by the Taliban.

The Taliban also don’t yet have the policing capacity to counter the probable increase in attacks against them, particularly in urban areas where ISIS-K has a stronger presence. They are used to being an insurgent force and need to learn how to secure cities. And because of the recently freed prisoners, ISIS-K is well positioned to challenge the Taliban in rural areas of eastern Afghanistan, making the Taliban’s consolidation of power there difficult.

That puts the United States and the Taliban in a potentially awkward position where they share the same enemy. Should the United States work with the Taliban against the Islamic State? There are two paths forward. One option, which the Biden administration appears to be leaning toward, is to cooperate with the Taliban, including perhaps on intelligence sharing for drone strikes against ISIS-K leaders. This, however, is not a viable long-term strategy. While it may nominally degrade the Islamic State, any appearance of U.S.-Taliban cooperation would most likely deepen divisions within the Taliban to the benefit of ISIS-K.

The United States could also choose to do nothing — and let the Taliban, their allies and ISIS-K battle it out. It’s a risky strategy: To demonstrate their strength, Al Qaeda and ISIS-K might try to inspire or launch transnational attacks. But the pressure of the local battlefield will limit the threat to some extent.

Two decades later, the terrorism threat from Afghanistan against the United States and the rest of the world hasn’t faded. Competition has merely increased the stakes.

Asfandyar Mir (@asfandyarmir) is an affiliate at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. His research is on the international relations of South Asia, U.S. counterterrorism policy and political violence, with a regional focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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