Can the jihadi group consider its two-year-old venture in Afghanistan and Pakistan a success?
2014 had been a year of promise for Afghanistan. Peace talks between the Taliban and Pakistan were underway, the US-led coalition ended its official combat mission at the end of the year, and the country had its first ever democratic transfer of power. Although the government-building process was chaotic and protracted, there was a sense of optimism, both at home and within the international community, about the country's future.
Then, after months of rumors about the group's emerging presence in Afghanistan, on January 26, 2015, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, ISIS' now-deceased spokesperson, announced an "expansion" of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's "caliphate" into the "lands of Khorasan." A term from Islamic history that encompasses a swathe of South and Central Asia, "Khorasan Province" would come to refer to ISIS operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
2015 stood in contrast to the year that had gone before. Militant violence escalated rapidly; Afghanistan saw more deaths from terrorism in 2015 than ever before in the country, with around 800 more casualties than in the previous year.
Experts debate whether the "ISIS effect" was a symptom or cause of rapidly worsening violence. On one level, ISIS remained a marginal threat, with the Afghan insurgency still Taliban-dominated. The 2015 UN Assistance Mission Report attributed 82 civilian casualties to ISIS-affiliated commanders, but more than 4,000 to the Taliban. However, ISIS' rise undoubtedly played a role as a catalyst for the commencement of a "race to the bottom" between militants, as the Taliban's monopoly on anti-state violence diminished. The Taliban perhaps could have refashioned itself as a "moderate" alternative to ISIS brutality. Instead it doubled down, launching renewed attacks under sustained pressure, culminating in the brief capture of the city of Kunduz in September 2015.
The current threat
President Ashraf Ghani has said that Afghanistan would be ISIS' "graveyard," wishfully adding the group to the lengthy list of failed ventures by outside invaders. But two years on, where does the group stand today? Data from the Center on Religion and Geopolitics' Global Extremism Monitor for the last quarter of 2016 shows that attacks instigated by ISIS resulted in at least 94 deaths, the great majority of these civilians. But the group also suffered heavy losses — reporting shows that state counter-actions killed at least 497 ISIS-affiliated militants during the period.
Operations have been launched against the group by Afghan armed forces, American drones, and Taliban "special operations" units. Yet it remains resilient in its strongholds in Nangarhar province, in Afghanistan's east, both because of the favorable geography of the mountainous region, but also the religious landscape, with continued support for ISIS among some minority Salafi communities in the province.
Under renewed pressure, 2016 saw the group expand its range, as it shifted to insurgency tactics rather than full-fledged militancy. Operations have also been reported around the country, far from the group's heartlands on the Pakistani border. An active cell in Kabul has claimed more than a dozen attacks, while local officials have even alleged ISIS activities as far afield as Ghor province, in the country's west.
One notable shift that ISIS has brought to the Afghan conflict is an explicit attempt to stoke sectarian conflict, with the aim of pitching itself as the defender of global Sunnism against Shia aggression. This objective has been pursued through its targeting of the Shia-majority Hazara community, in bomb attacks on rallies and religious ceremonies. So far ISIS' sectarian approach to this conflict is failing, partly because Hazaras are not responding to ISIS violence in kind, according to Rohullah Yacobi, of the Human Security Center. He expresses concerns, however, that with increasing attacks on the community, anger directed at Kabul for failing to protect minorities is on the rise, and the threat of reciprocal violence is growing, particularly with the likely return of Hazara foreign fighters battling alongside Iranian forces in Syria.
The outsised geopolitical impact of the group's emergence in Afghanistan cannot be underestimated. Dawood Azami, writing for the BBC, conjures up analogies of a new "great game," as ISIS' emergence coincides with a perfect storm of increased tensions between the United States and regional players such as Russia, China, Iran, and Pakistan.
ISIS in Afghanistan has few allies, and has managed to present a unifying threat, bringing together unlikely partners and traditional rivals. In particular, the landscape has been changed through increased political engagement by Iran and Russia with the Taliban, over their common ISIS enemy. Russia in particular fears a growing support base for the group in Central Asia, a region firmly within Moscow's sphere of influence, and which has seen thousands of fighters travel to Iraq and Syria.
A battle of ideas
Although ISIS has had limited success in its military efforts and the governing of territory, some experts have suggested that its greater impact, and priority is in the propaganda war for hearts and minds of Afghans. As Borhan Osman, of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, points out, "while ISKP's influence on the battlefield seems to be waning — at least for now — its ideological potential does not seem to be in a concordant state of decline."
Osman has conducted detailed studies of ISIS' Afghanistan-focused propaganda. He finds that the quality, variety, and distribution network of ISIS output is outshining that of the Taliban, despite its much smaller size. Four main themes resonate throughout its radio broadcasts and written content: the duty of violent jihad, ISIS's own legitimacy in fronting this cause, the transnationalism of its movement, and the discrediting of the "deviance" of its jihadi rivals.
Although concluding that ISIS' ideology has little appeal for most Afghans, Osman identifies potential growth areas for the group, including among educated young people attracted to its apocalyptic vision; would-be jihadis impressed by the "purity" of its mission; and among foreign fighters, particularly those that see the Taliban as nationalistic.
Casey Johnson, an Afghanistan analyst who has researched ISIS in depth, outlined how the group's "battle of ideas" with the Taliban might play out over the coming year. ISIS is intent on pushing a religious argument to affirm its legitimacy, and therefore "ownership" of the Afghan jihad, claiming that the Taliban's Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is necessarily subservient to ISIS' caliphate. Johnson notes ISIS' attempts to "discredit the Taliban on a religious basis in its 'official' propaganda outlets like Dabiq, as well as in its radio broadcasts in eastern Afghanistan," a tactic that has been pursued since ISIS' origination in the country in 2015.
But non-religious arguments are also being made by ISIS propaganda to broaden its appeal across Afghanistan. ISIS portrays the Taliban's mission as being narrow and nationalistic, and by "emphasising the Pashtun-centric nature of the Taliban," the group has worked to appeal to other rival ethnic groups, evidenced through its recruitment of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan to its cause.
Perhaps the most important argument being waged for people's hearts and minds relates to which group — ISIS or the Taliban — is more authentically "Afghan." The Taliban has been more effective so far in showcasing its credibility, by emphasing the relative foreignness of Baghdadi's hordes. But this strategy could yet backfire. "By highlighting ISIS's connections to Pakistan (including leadership, and support zones), a fact that incenses many Afghans, the Taliban risks a case of the pot calling the kettle black," says Johnson, given the group's own international support structures from Pakistan and the Gulf.
Implications for the new US administration
Violent extremism thrives on vacuums, and geopolitical uncertainty. The United States' new president has cast doubt over the utility of the country's engagement in Afghanistan, an ambivalence explicitly seized on by the Taliban. Previously, US strikes have particularly targeted ISIS' recruitment infrastructure in Afghanistan, including its "Voice of the Caliphate" radio station. The suggestion of premature disengagement seems to stand in contrast to Donald Trump's idealistic inaugural promise to "wipe out radical Islamic terrorism from the face of the Earth."
ISIS propaganda has shown remarkable adeptness in shifting its narratives to capitalise on potential advantageous geopolitical developments. While its presence in Afghanistan remains small, the lessons of al-Qaeda's resilience in the country, despite the presence of an international counter-insurgency operation, must be heeded. ISIS operations and output in Afghanistan are bolstered by the fact that they are largely unlinked from central command, as its success does not hinge on the fate of the "caliphate" in Iraq and Syria.
ISIS' motto is "remaining and expanding." Two years on, the group can say it has succeeded in achieving one of these aims, against the odds. The international community must stay unwavering in its support for the Afghan state to ensure that the group's other objective is not accomplished in the coming year.
This article was originally published in The Diplomat.