The ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan also known as ISIS-Khorasan or Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) poses a serious security threat to Afghan civilians primarily the minority communities and the foreign nationals as evident from recent high-profile terror attacks conducted by the group apart from other attacks finding lesser global media coverage in recent months.
The killing of ISIS leader by US strikes such as Abu Sayeed Orakzai in August 2018 is likely to have temporary impact on the group as killings of the then leaders Abu Sayed in 2017, Abdul Hasib and Hafiz Sayed Khan in 2016 failed to cast any significant impacts on the vitality of the group. The group has shown tremendous ability to bounce back in Iraq and Syria taking advantage of the simmering disaffection, anger and frustration among the rebel groups.
Even while the Taliban have been responsible for more civilian casualties in the first half of 2018, they claimed responsibility for lesser number of civilian casualties with more attacks compared to more civilian casualties with a fewer attacks perpetrated by ISIS as a UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) report released on July 15, 2018 indicated. For instance, the report attributed 42 per cent civilian casualties to the Afghan Taliban and 18 per cent to ISIS, however, the Taliban claimed responsibility for 26 attacks resulting in 453 civilian casualties and ISIS claimed responsibility for 15 attacks with 595 civilian casualties.
Two points are revealing here. First, ISIS, though a new actor in Afghan landscape, claimed responsibility more casualties than the Taliban. Second, the second half of 2018 witnessed some of dreadful attacks by ISIS while the Taliban kept engaging in the peace process and sporadic violence as in the provincial capital of Ghajni. The report while stated that the civilians killed during the first six months of 2018 were the highest over the last decade since the agency began documentation, the second half of the year has already witnessed many appalling terror strikes perpetrated predominantly by ISIS taking lives of many civilians and would probably turn the year into one of the most violent years in Afghanistan.
Noticeably, the primary targets for the Taliban are the Afghan government institutions and officials aimed at the objective of piling up pressure on the US and Afghan government to agree to their political claims and peace terms and the terror attacks by ISIS not only targeted at the Afghan government officials and foreign diplomatic presence considering them ‘apostates’, it indiscriminately targeted at civilians who they believed to be ‘heretics’ primarily religious minority communities in Afghanistan.
While ISIS carried out attacks on Afghan Interior Ministry and the Finance Department in May 2018, the Education Department was attacked twice in July, 2018. The group targeted most of its offensives towards civilians of Shiite sect of Islamic religion, religious communities like Hindus and Sikhs are not immune from ISIS terror strikes as the offensives in the Afghan city of Jalalabad which killed 19 people including 17 persons from Sikh and Hindu communities on July 1, 2018 indicate.
The Taliban stake its claim to be legal and political actor in Afghanistan and therefore, are likely to be careful not to perpetrate attacks that result in large-scale killings of Afghan civilians, ISIS on the other hand, has pan-Islamic objectives and openly claims its responsibility for the attacks taking huge toll on civilians who they believed did not conform to their religious beliefs. While attacks by ISIS unambiguously target civilians, civilian casualties by the Taliban primarily came as collateral damage caused by the armed clashes between the Afghan government and the Taliban and between the Taliban on the one hand and the NATO and American forces on the other. The Taliban attacks on government institutions and diplomatic presence of foreign countries also resulted in death of civilians.
The methods of torture adopted and the objectives pursued by ISIS are far more dreadful and transnational than the objectives pursued by the Taliban in Afghanistan. ISIS has resorted to the extreme brutal methods of torture such as beheadings and forcing the victims to sit on explosives with recorded clippings to arouse fear among other actors within Afghanistan including foreign nationals and civilians of religious minority communities. Aside from this, terrorizing women by resorting to rape and abduction has contributed no less to the Afghan fear and anguish.
ISIS has claimed responsibility for most of the despicable and horrendous terrorist attacks apart from more frequent but less highlighted attacks on the Afghan soil. For instance, there were successive terror attacks in Kabul on April 30, 2018 which reportedly took lives of more than forty civilians including children. These strikes followed closely on the heels of a spate of serious attacks a week before in which more than sixty civilians were killed while they lined up to register to vote for the upcoming elections.
Attacks on August 15, 2018 claimed lives of more than forty eight young people among which 34 were students belonging to the Shiite minority sect who were preparing for university entrance exams. The car bomb attack on a gathering of the Taliban and Afghan forces united to celebrate Eid ceasefire between June 15 and 17 which claimed at least 26 lives and left several others wounded in the eastern province of Nangarhar could have no other objective except sabotaging the peace process and spread lawlessness in Afghanistan which could only provide the group with the ability to spread its radical ideology and recruit emotionally-tormented people.
The Taliban aspire to be legal and political actor with firm indigenous roots and are amenable to peace and reconciliation despite its radical ambitions, ISIS, on the other hand, neither possesses any nationalist agenda nor does it stick to indigenous character. For instance, a piece in guardian newspaper projected that ISIS in Afghanistan (ISKP) has been strengthened by Taliban defectors, fighter from Iraq and Syria, militants from Sudan, Chechnya, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Russian sources continue to express their concerns that ISIS has an enhanced presence in Afghanistan with around 10,000 fighters spread across eight to nine provinces.
This threat perception from enhanced presence of ISIS is also shared by China, Pakistan and Iran. Even while the US-led forces downplay the number and strength of ISIS, the well-documented presence of the group in the eastern provinces of Nangarhar, Kunar and Nuristan along the Pakistani border and in the northern province of Jowzjan seem to be major concerns for the neighboring countries. Further, cases of successful terror attacks conducted by the group in the city of Kabul lay bare the grim fact that the group can spread its influence to any part of Afghanistan with notice of any slightest slackening of security controls.