ISIS-K, U.S. security and the future of Afghanistan

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Can’t tell the terrorist players without a scorecard? You’re not alone. During the past two decades, we have been exposed to a plethora of foreign and domestic extremist organizations. Now a new threat has arisen. While most Americans only became aware of it during Thursday’s attack on the Kabul airport, ISIS-K has been around for several years. The group is certainly a security concern for the United States, but it poses a greater threat to the Taliban.

“Didn’t the United States and its allies destroy ISIS?” many people ask. The answer is yes and no. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) exists on many levels. It is best known as a self-proclaimed Islamic Caliphate that controlled territory in Iraq and Syria, generally referred to as the Islamic State. Led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who proclaimed himself Caliph (leader of the Muslim world and spiritual descendant of the Prophet Mohammed), the Islamic State controlled 34,000 square miles at its height. From 2014-2019, Baghdadi ruled with a brutality that would make the Taliban blush. His forces imposed a harsh form of sharia in cities like Raqqa, and enslaved and raped Yazidi women and girls. U.S. special forces killed Baghdadi in October 2019, five months after they helped liberate the last Islamic State territory.

The Islamic State was gone but its network of affiliated groups was not. Named for the historic region that includes parts of Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, ISIS in Khorasan (ISIS-K) was created in 2015, possibly by hardliners from the Pakistani Taliban. It was based in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan, just inside the Pakistan border and attracted extremists from all over the region, as well farther abroad. According to an April 2021 UN Report, military action by U.S. and Afghan security forces in 2018, reduced its effective strength to 1,500-2000 and forced it to operate in decentralized cells acting semi-autonomously. However, the brutal attack on a girls’ school in Kabul on May 8, 2021, which killed more than 80 people (most of them children), and the attack on the Kabul airport this past Thursday suggest that ISIS-K may have experienced a resurgence during the past three years.

The airport attack had a dual purpose. ISIS-K certainly wanted to kill Americans and humiliate the United States, whose credibility has already been damaged by the precipitous collapse of the Afghan government. But the terrorists also had another objective: to undermine the legitimacy of the Taliban as it tries to govern the country it just conquered. The Taliban have been cooperating with the U.S. military to expedite the evacuation and U.S. departure. Since they run security outside the airport, this attack makes them look weak.

Strange though it may seem, ISIS-K and the Taliban are arch enemies. Both are jihadists, ultraconservatives using violence to impose their version of Islam on those they control. There the similarity ends. ISIS-K has criticized the Taliban for relying too much on Afghan “tribal customs” instead of governing strictly by Islamic law, which transcends local traditions. It also takes the Taliban to task for its narrow focus. Like the Islamic State, ISIS-K wants to establish a global caliphate. Whatever lip service it may pay to that long-term objective, the Taliban seeks to control Afghanistan. For hardline jihadists, that nationalist objective amounts to selling out the greater cause.

The airport attack will have significant consequences in both the short and the long run. The evacuation will continue, but it seems highly unlikely that all those wishing to leave will be able to do so, especially as people have been told not to travel to the airport for fear of more terrorist attacks. The U.S. military will certainly target ISIS-K. In his address to the nation following the attack, President Biden promised retribution to the terrorists, saying, “We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.” In a foreshadowing of how we will conduct the next phase of the long struggle against extremism, the president indicated that we would strike at the time and place of our choosing using precisions weapons rather than ground forces. Retribution was swift in coming, as the Pentagon conducted a drone strike against an ISIS-K member in Nangahar province just over 24 hours after Biden spoke. More strikes are sure to follow.

Many observers will see the airport attack as confirmation of their fear that Afghanistan will become a haven for terrorists planning against the West. For the foreseeable future, however, ISIS-K will pose a far greater threat to the Taliban than it will to the United States. The new leadership in Kabul has its hands full trying to form a government from the disparate elements of their own movement while working with numerous warlords who still control much of the country. They will now have to undertake that difficult task while combatting ISIS-K. They may patch up their differences with the extremists, but it is more likely that they will be engaged in a protracted struggle much like the one the U.S. military conducted against them — a bitter irony if ever there was one. 

Critics of the Biden administration will be quick to claim that the American casualties suffered during the airport attack are a direct result of the president’s “ill-advised” withdrawal policy. Do they really imagine that a day would have come when U.S. troops could have marched triumphantly out of Kabul leaving a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan behind? The withdrawal was bound to be messy. The casualties occurred not during the troop withdrawal but during the mission to evacuate Americans (some of whom ignored the embassy’s warning to leave) and Afghans who had worked with U.S. forces. That mission had to be mounted hastily because the Afghan National Army, which an intelligence assessment had assured the White House could hold out for one to two years, collapsed precipitously. The tragic deaths of 13 service personnel make abundantly clear that this war is not worth any further cost in American blood or treasure. 

Tom Mockaitis is professor of history at DePaul University and author of “Violent Extremists: Understanding the Domestic and International Terrorist Threat.”

Tags afghan collapse Afghanistan conflict Afghanistan troop withdrawal ISIS ISIS-K Joe Biden Kabul airport middle east wars Taliban

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