By Ajit Kumar Singh*
While the entire attention of the international community is on ‘final deal’ between the United States (US) and the Taliban, the Islamic State (IS, also Daesh) continues with its deadly progression in Afghanistan. On August 17, 2019, Daesh executed a suicide bombing inside a wedding hall in Kabul city, the national capital, killing at least 64 civilians and injuring another 182. The death toll later increased to 80. This was the worst attack targeting civilians recorded in Afghanistan since January 27, 2018, when the Taliban carried out a suicide attack near the old Ministry of Interior building in Kabul City, killing 103 persons and injuring 235.
Since January 27, 2018, Afghanistan has recorded at least four incidents where civilian fatalities exceeded 50, and two these were claimed by the Islamic State (including the August 17 attack). The other incident claimed by the Islamic State occurred on April 22, 2018, when 57 people were killed and 119 were injured in a suicide attack on a voter registration centre in the Dasht-i-Barchi area of Kabul City. The 57 killed included 21 women and five children.
The other two incidents during this period with over 50 fatalities were:
September 11, 2018: 68 civilians were killed and 165 were injured in a suicide bombing in the Dak area of Momand Dara District in Nangarhar Province.
November 20, 2018: 55 people were killed and 94 were injured in a suicide bombing conducted inside the Uranus Wedding Hall in Kabul City.
Though no group claimed responsibility for these two incidents, reports indicate that the Islamic State was behind both these attacks as well.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), Daesh has been targeting more and more civilians across Afghanistan, mainly in Kabul, Kunar and Nangarhar Provinces. In the current year Daesh has already killed at least 98 civilians out of a total of 432 civilians killed in the country in terrorism-linked incidents, accounting for 22.68 per cent of total civilian fatalities (data till August 25, 2019). During the corresponding period of 2018, this proportion stood at 14.55 per cent (IS accounted for 117 out of a total of 804 civilian fatalities). Through 2018, the proportion stood at 11.37 per cent (IS accounted for 146 of a total of 1,284 civilian fatalities).
The United Nations Assistance Mission (UNAMA) in its Annual Report 2018, released in February 2019 noted that civilian casualties from Daesh attacks deliberately targeting civilians more than doubled, from 843 in 2017 to 1,871 in 2018. In its mid-year report released in July 2019, UNAMA attributed 52 per cent of all civilian casualties between January 1 to June 30, 2019, to Anti-Government Elements, with 38 per cent attributed to Taliban, 11 per cent to Daesh, and three per cent to unidentified Anti Government Elements. According to the report, anti-Government Elements caused 1,968 civilian casualties (531 deaths and 1,437 injured) during this period. In its 2018 mid-year report, released in July 2018, UNAMA had attributed 67 per cent of all civilian casualties to Anti-Government Elements, with 42 per cent attributed to Taliban, 18 per cent to Daesh, and seven per cent to unidentified Anti-Government Elements (including less than one per cent to self-proclaimed Daesh attacks).
The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR)’s 43rd Quarterly Report released on April 30, 2019, noted,
|Although U.S. officials have consistently asserted that Islamic State Khorasan, the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan, has been degraded on multiple fronts, the group poses a greater security threat to the Afghan people and security forces than it did in 2016. As the terrorist group has not been defeated, is not a party to peace negotiations, and continues to execute high-casualty attacks in major Afghan population centers, it remains potent.|
Later, the US Department of Defense (DoD) in a report submitted to the US Congress, which covered the period between December 1, 2018 and May 31, 2019, observed,
|During this reporting period, ISIS-K [Islamic State in Iraq and Syria-Khorasan] made territorial gains in eastern Afghanistan. Regionally the group continues to evade, counter, and resist sustained CT [Counter Terrorism] pressure. While ISIS-K remains operationally limited to South and Central Asia, the group harbors intentions to attack international targets…|
An August 20, 2019, Washington Post report quoted Salim Mohammed Salim, a former legislator in Konar Province, as saying,
|The Islamic State had established bases in his region, forced villagers to flee, recruited some men by force and killed others who resisted. They are dug in in these rugged areas, and nobody can dislodge them. The Taliban tried and failed. The Americans used to send drones, but they stopped. The Afghan government is incompetent.|
The Islamic State in Afghanistan, which had an estimated active cadre strength of around 1,000 in 2017, is currently believed to have between 2,500 and 5,000 active cadres. The cadre strength is expected to grow, as many experts believe that battle hardened Taliban militants who are opposed to the deal between the Taliban and the US may join the Islamic State.
The concern is real. The US DoD in its report to Congress, noted,
|Even if a successful political settlement with the Taliban emerges from ongoing talks, AQ, ISIS-K, and some unknown number of Taliban hardliners will constitute a substantial threat to the Afghan government and its citizens, as well as to the United States and its Coalition partners. This enduring terrorist threat will require the United States, the international community, and the ANDSF to maintain a robust CT capability for the foreseeable future.|
The danger of Daesh making further inroads is increasing with the group recovering some strength in its ‘homeland’ regions of Syria and Iraq. The Lead Inspector General Report to the US Congress, which covered the period between April 1, 2019, to June 30, 2019, released in August 2019, observed,
|Despite losing its territorial “caliphate,” the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) solidified its insurgent capabilities in Iraq and was resurging in Syria this quarter… CJTF-OIR [Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR)] said that ISIS in Iraq was able to establish a more stable command and control node and a logistics node for coordination of attacks… In Syria, USCENTCOM [U.S. Central Command] reported to the DoD OIG [Office of the Inspector General] that ISIS has activated resurgent cells in areas controlled by the SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces] … CJTF-OIR reported based on open source data that ISIS likely has between 14,000 and 18,000 “members,” including “fighters,” in Iraq and Syria, including up to 3,000 foreigners|
Under the prevailing situation, Fawad Aman, a spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, on August 20, 2019, claimed, “We have eliminated their bases in the east, and they are concentrated in very small areas. They cannot fight our forces face-to-face.” This appears to be little more than wishful thinking and attempt to deny the stark reality of an augmenting threat.
It is for the United States which, for last almost 18 years devastated Afghanistan in the name of establishing peace and tranquility in the region, to ensure that the Islamic State is stopped from gaining further ground inside Afghanistan. If the US decides otherwise, which seems more than likely, given the US hurry to flee the country, Afghanistan in all likelihood will plunge deeper into crisis in the immediate aftermath of the US withdrawal.
- Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management