A number of high-profile attacks in Afghanistan towards the end of January 2018 were claimed by competing terrorist groups ISIS and the Taliban — putting the spotlight back on a country that has been at war for over a decade.
An attack on Save the Children’s Jalalabad office on Jan. 24 that killed six people and an attack on Kabul’s military academy on Jan. 29 that killed at least 11 Afghan soldiers were claimed by ISIS’ Afghan branch — known as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — Khorasan Province (ISIS-K).
Since its creation in 2015, ISIS has pushed to have a bigger presence in Afghanistan. The recent attacks, and the fact that ISIS-K has proven to be stubbornly resilient, have made some in the West more worried about the group.
Seth G. Jones, an expert on Afghanistan and a senior adviser to the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Business Insider that the Taliban and ISIS have been “at each other’s throats” since day one — but there is no question who the more threatening group is.
U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman Second Class Michael “Doc” McNeely with the Georgian Liaison Team – a joint Coalition Patrol Team – carries one of the children whose life he helped save after a Taliban suicide bombing attack Nov. 22, 2017. (DVIDS Image from Master Sgt. Sheryl Lawry)
“The Taliban is a much larger organization, controls roughly 10-12% of the population of Afghanistan, has conducted a lot more attacks, and has some support among Afghanistan’s conservative rural population,” Jones said.
“ISIS-K, on the other hand, is shrinking in size, controls virtually no territory, has conducted far fewer attacks, and has virtually no support among Afghanistan’s population.”
ISIS declares the ‘Khorasan Province’
ISIS first came to South Asia in 2014, using the group’s substantial funds and weak local governments to co-opt high-ranking members of the Pakistani Taliban and disaffected members of the Afghan Taliban.
But almost as soon as it was founded, ISIS-K began suffering losses, as they found themselves fighting the Pakistani and Afghani governments, the NATO Coalition, and the Taliban all at the same time.
Angry that ISIS had taken some of their members in southern Afghanistan, the Taliban hit back and essentially wiped out ISIS-K in Helmand and Farah provinces.
ISIS has also suffered major losses in its fight against the Afghan government in NATO. All three of its top leaders (called “emirs”) have been killed since the group was founded, and, according to Jones, their numbers have almost been halved since their founding.
ISIS-K is now more of a deadly nuisance than a strategic threat to Afghanistan.
“ISIS-K controls virtually nothing other than a small segment of territory. They’re not competing in any meaningful way,” Jones said. “It’s in a bad situation. It has got everybody against it.”
Jones said ISIS-K has been so surprisingly resilient because it mostly operates in parts of Nangarhar Province, particularly the Achin District, where neither the Taliban or the Afghan government have much control. Instead, the region is mostly controlled by local tribes and clans.
Jones believes, however, that ISIS-K will eventually become a transnational movement — forced to move into Pakistan or Bangladesh as operations against them continue.
“They’re down in numbers, it looks like they are down in recruitment, they’ve stuck around but it looks like under most accounts they are probably weakening,” he said.
Taliban remains the dominant jihadist force
All of this is in stark contrast to the Taliban, where “there is absolutely no comparison,” according to Jones.
Recent reports suggest that the Taliban has tripled in size since 2014 to up to 60,000. This is compared to ISIS-K’s 1,000-2,000.
The Taliban have complete control of some areas in Afghanistan’s countryside, have their own court systems and governmental structures in place, a military structure based in Pakistan, and, according to a recent BBC report, threaten 70% of the country.
ISIS-K and the Taliban are likely to continue attacks like the ones that plagued Afghanistan in January 2018. Those high-profile attacks are important because even though neither ISIS or the Taliban control any urban territory, they gain international media attention and put them in the spotlight.
Jones said the attacks “may give an impression that groups like the Taliban are omnipresent,” even though they are not. “That’s really a psychological impact.”