Why the Islamic State in Afghanistan is Too Weak to Overthrow the Taliban
In August 2021, the U.S. military withdrew the last of its troops from Afghanistan, which led to the Taliban’s rapid takeover and the toppling of the U.S.-backed government in Kabul. A little more than a year later, the Taliban are still in control, and concerns persist in the West over their ties with al-Qaeda and reports of human rights abuses. At the same time, ISIS-K, a branch of the Islamic State in Afghanistan that’s known for its violent ideology and goal of militarily defeating the Taliban due to sectarian differences, has continued its campaign of violence throughout the nation. This issue brief offers an assessment of ISIS-K to determine if it has the capability to overthrow the Taliban.
Over the last year, ISIS-K has maintained a steady stream of attacks against various soft targets in the country, in particular religious minorities. Recently, it targeted the Russian embassy in Kabul, killing two Russians and four Afghan civilians in a suicide attack. This is the first time Russian nationals were killed in Kabul since the withdrawal of Soviet soldiers from Afghanistan in 1989. According to a UN report, a total of 700 civilians have been killed and 1,406 wounded since the Taliban’s takeover — and much of this violence has been perpetrated by ISIS-K. Several American generals have even expressed concerns that the group is “solidifying its foothold” in Afghanistan.
The violence and brutality of ISIS-K against Afghan civilians is deeply concerning and signifies how the group continues to be a source of substantial insecurity for the nation. However, carefully examining the group’s activities reveals that ISIS-K has failed to engage the Taliban in meaningful, face-to-face confrontations — even in areas that were previously ISIS-K’s territorial strongholds. ISIS-K has occasionally ambushed isolated checkpoints of the Taliban, but, by and large, the group has avoided active confrontations with the Taliban that would allow it to assert territorial control.
ISIS-K’s current modus operandi suggests that it remains organizationally weak. The group does not seem to have the capacity to mount major coordinated attacks that would overwhelm Taliban defenses. It also seems to lack the confidence to operate in ways that could amount to a nationwide threat to the Taliban. Why is this?
Three possible explanations — that are essential for policymakers monitoring the situation in Afghanistan to understand — are outlined below.
Reason 1: ISIS-K has Limited Local Support
First, ISIS-K is struggling with local support due to its past behavior. Nangarhar, a province of Afghanistan bordering Pakistan in the east, was formerly the central hub for ISIS-K when it first emerged in 2015. However, the group is now feared and disliked in the province.
In 2015, local communities welcomed the early fighters of the group, who had defected from the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan. Migrating from Pakistan, they were received as guests in the area. But ISIS-K fighters behaved poorly with the civilian population, something that remains etched in the minds of most communities. To assert control in the Nangarhar province, ISIS-K leaders and fighters punished the most important members of the community — elders. They harassed them consistently; at times, they inflicted some of the worst violence against them, including forcing them to sit on explosives before blowing them up to make examples out of them.
Over time, such poor treatment turned what was a hospitable community into a hostile enemy. As a result, local communities were galvanized to join the Afghan Taliban as well as former Afghan government forces to defeat ISIS-K.
In the province of Kunar, as ISIS-K commanders imposed strict rules, including capital punishment, local civilians turned against them — just as the communities in Nangarhar province had done.
ISIS-K's trajectory contrasts with that of the Taliban, which enjoyed considerable local support as an insurgency. With the passage of time, the Taliban locked in more support, which helped them intercept intelligence between American and Afghan forces to evade being targeted or captured. This is apparent most clearly by the fact that the Taliban only lost one top leader to American targeting: Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansur in 2016. In fact, he was not killed in Afghanistan, where the Taliban had local support, but in a drone strike in Pakistan. Even Mullah Omar, the founder of the Taliban, was able to rely on local support to shield himself: He lived in a house an hour’s walk away from an American military base in the province of Zabul for almost a decade.
Reason 2: ISIS-K is Perceived as a Foreign Group
Beyond limited popular support, a second major reason for ISIS-K’s weakness is that it is widely perceived as a foreign group in many Afghan communities, both ideologically and as an organization itself. This problem is traceable to the first years of its existence in the country: ISIS-K leadership and its initial rank-and-file fighters were mostly Pakistanis. Key Pakistani leaders included Hafiz Saeed Khan, Abdul Haseeb Logari (an Afghan but a native of Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), Abu Omar Khorasani and Asalm Farooqi.
Only years later did Afghans join the ranks of ISIS-K and take minor leadership roles — but even then they did not join in large numbers. In many instances Afghans struggled to attain leadership positions in the group. This reinforced the perception that ISIS-K was a foreign entity and limited its ability to appeal to a broader cross-section of Afghan society, even when many were disillusioned with the former Afghan government and the Taliban. This, in turn, depressed ISIS-K’s recruitment of local youth in the rural areas of Nangarhar, a main base of operations for the group.
ISIS-K sought to compensate for its limited appeal in rural areas by turning to urban recruits. It focused on young bourgeoise men with modern education who lived mostly in Kabul and the surrounding cities. But this came at a cost: The urban recruits were less useful to the group than the rural rank-and-file members who lived in key areas of operations like Nangarhar.
Reason 3: ISIS-K Lacks a Strong Ideological Platform
Finally, ISIS-K has struggled to provide a strong ideological platform for its organization; instead it has fashioned itself in narrow sectarian terms, which limits its appeal. The vast majority of Afghans follow the Hanafi jurisprudence of Sunni Islam, but almost all Afghan and foreign fighters of ISIS-K are followers of the Salafi sect of the Islamic jurisprudence. Followers of this theology are limited to parts of the Nangarhar, Kunar and Nuristan provinces.
ISIS-K has not only struggled to appeal to the Hanafi community at large, it has also struggled to persuade important Afghan Salafis to support and side with them. For example, Salafi scholar Sheikh Abdul Aziz from the Nuristan province announced his allegiance with the Taliban leadership in March 2020. The group’s interest in sectarian purity also makes it difficult to absorb any defecting hardline factions of the Taliban.
ISIS-K may be the most violent actor in Afghanistan in relative terms, yet it is not on a trajectory to replace the Taliban as a state-like actor. The group faces significant limitations due to its lack of broad-based public support, its perception as a foreign entity and its ideological shallowness. It is unlikely that ISIS-K will become a national-level threat or succeed in gaining or holding actual territory unless it undergoes significant transformation. For now, there are no signs the group has that kind of capability.
 “Kabul explosion; Russian Embassy says it is suspending people’s access to the consulate,” BBC News, September 5, 2022, https://www.bbc.com/pashto/afghanistan-62793377.
 “UN Releases Report On Human Rights in Afghanistan,” UNAMA (United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan), press release, July 20, 2022, https://bit.ly/3S7QIkv.
 Jeff Seldin, “Islamic State Growing in Afghanistan But Not Ready to Attack US, West,” VOA, March 15, 2022, https://www.voanews.com/a/islamic-state-growing-in-afghanistan-but-not-ready-to-attack-us-west-/6486786.html.
 “Afghanistan’s Security Challenges under the Taliban,” International Crisis Group, Asia Report no. 326, August 12, 2022, https://www.crisisgroup.org/asia/south-asia/afghanistan/326-afghanistans-security-challenges-under-taliban.
 Borhan Osman, “The Islamic State in ‘Khorasan’: How it began and where it stands now in Nangarhar,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, July 27, 2016, https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/en/reports/war-and-peace/the-islamic-state-in-khorasan-how-it-began-and-where-it-stands-now-in-nangarhar/.
 Alan Cullison, “Inside the Hidden War Between the Taliban and ISIS,” The Wall Street Journal, August 26, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/isis-taliban-afghanistan-bombing-11630014684.
 Borhan Osman, “The Islamic State in ‘Khorasan.’”
 Obaid Ali and Khalid Gharanai, “Hit from Many Sides (2): The demise of ISKP in Kunar,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, March 3, 2021, https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/en/reports/war-and-peace/hit-from-many-sides-2-the-demise-of-iskp-in-kunar.
 Bette Dam, Looking for the Enemy: Mullah Omar and the Unknown Taliban (Noida, India: HarperCollins, 2021).
 “Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour killed, Afghans confirm,” BBC News, May 22, 2016, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-36352559.
 Dam, Looking for the Enemy.
 Daniel Byman, “Eighteen Years On: The War on Terror Comes of Age,” CTC Sentinel 12, no. 8 (September 2019), https://ctc.westpoint.edu/eighteen-years-war-terror-comes-age/.
 Shamshad TV, “Interview with a surrendered ISIS-K commander, Abul Rahim Muslimdost,” March 7, 2022, YouTube video, 44:23, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BAiD2QgNYq0.
 Cullison, “Inside the Hidden War Between the Taliban and ISIS.”
 Borhan Osman, “Bourgeois Jihad: Why Young, Middle-Class Afghans Join the Islamic State,” United States Institute of Peace, June 1, 2020, https://www.usip.org/publications/2020/06/bourgeois-jihad-why-young-middle-class-afghans-join-islamic-state.
 Ali and Gharanai, “Hit from Many Sides.”
 Abdul Sayed, Pieter Van Ostaeyen, and Charlie Winter,“Making Sense of the Islamic State’s War on the Afghan Taliban,” Hudson Institute, January 25, 2022, https://www.hudson.org/research/17796-making-sense-of-the-islamic-state-s-war-on-the-afghan-taliban.
 Ali and Gharanai, “Hit from Many Sides.”
 Obaid Fatih, “A large number of Salafi scholars announced their allegiance with the Taliban and they termed ISIS-K as an intriguing group,” Nunn.asia, March 11, 2020, https://bit.ly/3SrflYW.
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