An image, taken by Islamic State in Khorasan, reportedly showing training being undertaken in the east of Afghanistan. Courtesy of Alamy Stock / Pictorial Press
While several of its victories have gained media headlines, the Islamic State in Khorasan is struggling to compete with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
There is now an established debate over whether the Taliban can handle the Islamic State in Khorasan (IS-K) successfully and what kind of threat IS-K might represent to the West. The debate has been largely a political one, with little in-depth analysis of what IS-K or the Taliban have been doing. Should the Taliban be encouraged and even incentivised to concentrate efforts against IS-K? Would that be the best and perhaps only way to deal with the IS-K threat, assuming IS-K still represents a threat to US and Western interests? A rather common point of view is that the Taliban cannot cope with IS-K and even that they are steadily losing ground to it. Some also point out the connections between portions of the Taliban (the Haqqani network especially) and IS-K.
The limited evidence usually brought to support such views consist of statistics showing that a growing number of IS-K attacks were taking place until the winter. These statistics are, however, deeply misleading because they are largely about the number of attacks. Although Afghanistan remains sufficiently open for almost all claims of attacks to be verified, the mere number of attacks means little even if technically accurate.
Since the 2 November 2021 attack on Kabul’s military hospital, IS-K has not carried out another major terrorist attack and the impact of its operations in Kabul has become almost negligible. Not since 15 August has IS-K been able to target senior Taliban officials and leaders. The most senior Taliban officer killed, Hamdullah Mokhlis, died during the counterterrorism operation on 2 November and was not the victim of pre-planned attacks by IS-K. This contrasts with the Taliban’s targeted killing operations in Kabul in previous years, which were highly successful in hitting mid- and senior-ranking officials.
Since early November, IS-K has only been carrying out small hit-and-run raids against Taliban patrols and a few targeted assassinations against low-level individuals – such as officials of the previous government – and Taliban sympathisers. Almost all these attacks have resulted in just a handful of Taliban casualties, even according to IS-K claims; the Taliban mostly have not been commenting, but IS-K (as well as other Islamic State branches) tends to overstate its claims.
In January–February, the pace of IS-K operations slowed considerably
The overall picture therefore shows IS-K’s biggest achievement as having been able to expand attacks against very soft targets to several cities, where it did not previously operate militarily. Such cities include Kandahar, Charikar and Kunduz. That, alongside operations inside Kabul and Jalalabad, was likely primarily intended to keep the Taliban off balance and force them to allocate major human resources to securing the cities, as well as discrediting the emirate’s claim to be in full control. It worked initially, but the wave of attacks has petered out quite quickly, probably because IS-K cells in these new areas of operation were quite vulnerable and appear to have been mostly taken out by the Taliban.
In January–February, the pace of IS-K operations slowed considerably. The lull in major terrorist attacks continued, and the number of hit and run raids has gone down. While winter usually sees a slower pace of operations in Afghanistan, that would not normally affect urban guerrilla operations, nor operations in the warm areas of eastern Afghanistan, where IS-K forces are mostly concentrated. In particular, the slower pace of IS-K operations in and around Jalalabad lends some credibility to Taliban claims that their counterinsurgency efforts there have been successful there.
Of course, it is always possible to interpret quantitative data alone in alternative ways. Is IS-K perhaps now sparing forces for the next fighting season? Anything is possible, but as discussed above, its strategy in autumn was clearly based on the principle that attack is the best defence: keep the emirate off balance to avoid it being able to concentrate its forces against the strongholds of IS-K in the east. That makes sense, because every time the Taliban have been able to concentrate a substantial portion of their elite units against IS-K, they have won.
The Salafi community in eastern Afghanistan used to be the only social base of support for IS-K. According to work undertaken by this author, most Salafi clerics have decided to seek an understanding with the emirate, because they do not think that the route of Salafi armed resistance against the Taliban (whom they still see as unfriendly, especially as far as Sufi- and Deobandi-influenced Taliban are concerned) is viable. One of them recently stated in a confidential interview with a local researcher that he sees no chance of victory if the Salafi community supported IS-K against the Taliban, as it did in 2016–19.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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The Taliban could probably obtain indirect military support from a number of regional powers to help it respond to any major challenge
In the past, IS-K, southern Taliban and Haqqani network sources have all confirmed the collaboration between IS-K and the Haqqanis. However, this seems now to be well past its heyday. Although the connection does not appear to have been entirely cut, the Haqqanis for sure have no interest in facilitating IS-K attacks in Kabul, whose security they are now responsible for.
Although the Taliban’s official statements have been quite gung-ho about their ability to not only contain but also crush IS-K, in private interviews with local researchers, mid-rank commanders do show concerns about the ability of IS-K to attract disgruntled members of the Taliban. There have been several small-scale defections in recent months: in the east; in the northwest; and in the south. Apart from a single, relatively large group of 70 in the east, the other desertions were all small teams, typically 5–10 men. Isolated from IS-K logistics, the defectors in the south and northwest cannot do much against the Taliban at this stage; for the most part, they have simply been raising the flag. The largely Salafi profile of IS-K and the fact that there are so few Salafis left in the Taliban limit the ability of IS-K to attract members of the Taliban in the east, where it would be much better positioned to use them, given the proximity of its logistical bases.
The Taliban are also raising other concerns. One is the possibility of the Pakistani security services using IS-K as a tool of pressure against the emirate, given the currently poor relations between Kabul and Islamabad. There are grounds for some concern. While IS-K sources, contacted by local researchers, report that Taliban claims of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) providing direct support to IS-K are propaganda, the IS-K’s supply lines to Pakistan have now been reopened (they had been cut off in August). These supply lines will improve the ability of IS-K to maintain its bases in the east, in the face of a Taliban onslaught. However, worsening Islamic State violence in Pakistan suggests that relations between Pakistan and the Islamic State will not blossom. Another Taliban concern is that state and non-state actors in the Gulf – hostile to the emirate for various reasons (mostly geopolitical competition among the Gulf states, and between Gulf states and Iran) – might resume or increase funding to IS-K, enabling it to expand its ranks again.
The interviews with local researchers that have IS-K sources suggest that they are worried about the prospects of the Taliban attacking their bases in the east, which IS-K needs for logistics, training and for maintaining some semblance of command and control over its forces. A Taliban blitzkrieg, similar to the one they carried out in Nangarhar against IS-K in autumn 2019, would not be feasible in the remote valleys of Kunar and Nuristan, where IS-K’s residual bases are. However, the Taliban could impose a war of attrition on IS-K that it can ill afford. Defending these bases against attacking Taliban forces could easily cause IS-K tens of casualties a day. Last autumn, in Kunar IS-K opted to abandon most of its bases, rather than try to defend them against the Taliban. The IS-K sources mentioned above are optimistic that the wind could change direction and that (as the Taliban fear) more funding could be on its way to relaunch IS-K and allow it to expand operations in Afghanistan. They are also optimistic that the Taliban’s slow effort to gradually tackle the issue of foreign jihadists in Afghanistan will drive more of these into the ranks of IS-K: tens of Uyghurs and smaller numbers of Tajikistani and Uzbekistani jihadists have joined in the past six months.
Possibly the best chance of an IS-K recovery is offered by increasing Taliban concerns for the security situation in the north, where ethnic minority groups are intensifying their efforts to start an insurgency. In recent weeks, the Taliban have moved 10,000 personnel to the north, according to tweets by their chief of army staff (since deleted), and 2,000 to the central regions (according to local sources), further weakening its positions elsewhere. The Taliban had already left most of the Kunar countryside unprotected, allowing IS-K to regain control of many villages.
Time will tell whether IS-K can capitalise on, from its perspective, these potentially positive trends and whether these are enough to mount a serious challenge to the emirate. For now, the threat that IS-K has been able to mount has been quite modest. And even if it did better in the future, the Taliban could probably obtain indirect military support from a number of regional powers to help it respond to any major challenge.
Dr Antonio Giustozzi
Senior Research Fellow
Terrorism and Conflict