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How The Islamic State Fractures Afghanistan’s Peace Prospects – OpEd


By Daniel Sixto

The so-called Islamic State is successfully undermining US-led peace prospects in Afghanistan. On May 12, the president of the US-backed government, Ashraf Ghani, ordered security forces to pivot from a defensive to offensive stance on the Taliban and other adversaries. This is exactly what ISIS-K, the so-called Islamic State’s branch in Afghanistan, wants to see. ISIS-K hopes to divide Ghani’s government, the Taliban, and the United States as much as it can following peacebuilding measures set in late February between the Taliban and United States.

An Afghan peace agreement could potentially end over 30 years of conflict, paving a promising future for Afghanistan. February’s agreement strengthened confidence between the U.S. and Taliban insurgents, ultimately seeking dialogue between the Taliban and Ghani’s government.

Both the Taliban and Afghan government regularly combat ISIS-K, and a bilateral peace agreement among its adversaries could spell disaster for ISIS-K’s operations in Afghanistan. So, ISIS-K embarked on a three-pillared strategy to upend the peace agreement: attacking non-Sunni Muslim civilians, the Afghan government and the Taliban, and U.S. military bases in Afghanistan.

ISIS-K’s attacks on non-Sunni populations sever the trust between the Afghan government and the Taliban, leading to infighting and weakened peace prospects. On March 25, gunmen and suicide bombers killed 25 worshippers in a Sikh religious complex in Kabul. According to ISIS-K, the attack was “retaliation” for India’s treatment of Muslims in Kashmir, but the attack created larger implications for the Afghan government. Ghani’s government appeared weak and unable to govern its capital, so the Taliban attacked Afghan security forces a few days later.

Following ISIS-K’s attack, relations between the Taliban and the Afghan government worsened. On May 12, ISIS-K claimed another attack on a funeral in Nangarhar province which killed 24 civilians. The same day, an attack on a Kabul maternity ward orphaned 18 newborn babies. The U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan blamed ISIS-K for the attack, citing a US-led investigation, but Afghan government officials claimed that the Taliban was responsible.

Whether or not ISIS-K launched the attack on the maternity ward, its divisive strategy culminated in the Afghan government’s call for offensives against the Taliban, which incited a Taliban retaliatory attack on an Afghan military base two days later. ISIS-K’s continued attacks on non-Sunni civilian populations erodes trust between the Afghan government and the Taliban while weakening public faith in a peace deal.

ISIS-K’s attacks on the Afghan government and the Taliban, two of the most powerful factions in Afghanistan, haven’t unified them against a mutual adversary. Along with attacking non-Sunni civilian populations, ISIS-K’s direct attacks on Taliban and Afghan forces make Sunni Muslim populations in Afghanistan question the legitimacy of ISIS-K’s adversaries. On March 9, ISIS-K rocket fire interrupted President Ghani’s inauguration, creating an immediate sense of insecurity for the Afghans. Two months later, in May, ISIS-K claimed responsibility for “back-to-back” blasts on Afghan convoys in a search for a high-ranking Afghan intelligence official.

These attacks continue to succeed and divide the Afghans and the Taliban despite ISIS-K being dealt significant setbacks, including the reported arrests of the Afghan and South Asian affiliate branch leaders. The Taliban, on the other hand, engages ISIS-K in rural areas, clearing provinces to the extent where there are no known ISIS-K held territories in Afghanistan.

However, ISIS-K’s attack have only grown more frequent and deadlier, mirroring the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s strategy of hit-and-run attacks. ISIS-K’s ability to continue to launch attacks on the Taliban and Afghan forces highlights the lack of coordination between ISIS-K’s largest adversaries. Despite getting weaker, ISIS-K’s ability to stir unrest and divide the Afghans and the Taliban will likely delay further peace prospects.

ISIS-K’s third strategic pillar rests on minor attacks against U.S. military bases, directly confronting a key facilitator of Afghan peace. February’s peace agreement between the U.S. and Taliban called for the gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

This measure remains the largest incentive for the Taliban’s willingness to negotiate peace. If ISIS-K could delay U.S. troop withdrawals, it can muddle the peace deal. Thus, since troop withdrawal measures were announced in February, ISIS-K launched attacks on the U.S. Bagram Airbase on February 22March 21, and April 9. None of the attacks inflicted U.S. casualties, but they’re likely aimed to threaten the U.S. forces into remaining in Afghanistan. The U.S., still committed to withdrawing forces, has been the only player to not directly suffer casualties from ISIS-K’s intimidation tactics, allowing it to continue to abide by its promises.

ISIS-K’s believes a new stage of war follows February’s agreement, shifting its intimidation strategy to more frequently attacking vulnerable non-Sunni populations, its two largest adversaries in Afghanistan, and the United States military. Any peace deal directly threatens ISIS-K’s ability to operate in Afghanistan as a safe-haven, and if the U.S., Taliban, and Afghans sign a deal, it may spell disaster for ISIS-K. Despite holding no known formal territories, ISIS-K will likely continue to undermine and exploit its adversaries’ weaknesses in its pursuit of a Sunni Salafist state in Afghanistan.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect those of or any institutions with which the authors are associated.

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One thought on “How The Islamic State Fractures Afghanistan’s Peace Prospects – OpEd

  • May 29, 2020 at 6:56 am

    Whenever there is an offence, Motive is ascertained to apportion the blame. I wonder why ISIS-K has gone so active after inking of peace deal between TB, USA and Government of Afghanistan. While the things have amicably been settled between Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah also who is calling the shots on Civilians and religious gathering places such as Sunni Mosques and Sikh Gurudwaras and what is the motive. Lets see into it :-
    1. Pakistan is usually blamed for sidelining with TB. If a peace agreement has been concluded between USA, Afghan Government and TB there is no reason for Pakistan to be behind ISIS-K misadventures.
    2. Iran wants USA out of Afghanistan, so possibility of its involvement in creating unrest through an anti-Shia terrorist organization such as ISIS is not there.
    3. Other Central Asian neighbouring states i.e. Tajikistan, Uzbekistan etc are more interested in quick Afghan peace so that they can exploit the trade route leading to warm waters.
    4. China is more interested in USA moving out of its neighborhood, so creating an unrest to disallow or provide an excuse to USA to stay is not contemplated.

    I wonder, what is the motive of ISIS behind unrest and terrorism they promote; the only answer is ‘nothing’. Only country which can benefit from this situation is India which does not want USA to leave as it has huge anti-Pakistan investment in Afghanistan and has been against TB. No wonder why TB spokesman after the terrorist attack on maternity hospital gave a statement that ‘India has always played a negative role in Afghanistan and been supporting the wrong people there’.
    I leave the rest to your imagination, who is the beneficiary of ISIS-K created unrest in Afghanistan.


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