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ISIS is getting stronger in Afghanistan: how it happened and why it matters

Four members of ISIS are captured by Afghan authorities in Nangarhar, Afghanistan, on January 20, 2016.
Four members of ISIS are captured by Afghan authorities in Nangarhar, Afghanistan, on January 20, 2016.
Zabiullah Ghazi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

This is part two of our three-part series on the war in Afghanistan. Part one explained why 2016 could be a very bad year for the country. Part three, to publish Wednesday, examines the role of Pakistan and other outside actors.

Almost exactly one year ago, ISIS announced it was forming a new province not in Iraq or Syria, but far away in Afghanistan. Today, though it is estimated to have only between 1,000 and 3,000 fighters in the country, it is launching attacks — including, most recently, bombing the Pakistani consulate in Jalalabad, killing seven people. And it is building what Defense Secretary Ashton Carter called "little nests" in the country's east.

I called Rebecca Zimmerman, an associate policy analyst at the RAND Corporation and an expert on Afghanistan, to ask her about ISIS's apparently growing force in Afghanistan. What kind of a threat, if any, does it pose? How did ISIS get there in the first place, and what does it mean for the country in which the US has been fighting for the past decade and a half?

What follows is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity and length.

Jennifer Williams: To what extent is there actually an ISIS presence in Afghanistan? How active are they? What kind of attacks are they making?

Rebecca Zimmerman: There is definitely an Islamic State presence, whereas I think at one point we thought the Islamic State was something that didn't really exist there, but it threatened to exist. Or where we saw it, it was something that maybe the Afghans were sort of ratcheting up the perception of the threat, in order to keep people engaged and interested in the issue.

I think now nobody can really say it's not a problem. It is a real problem. There is an Islamic State presence in Afghanistan. Now they call it ISKP: Islamic State in Khorasan Province.

Some of the ISKP are coming from Pakistan. These are the former Taliban folks who have — the terms that you hear folks in the US using tend to be either "reflagging" or "rebranding."

Then you also have the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU. It actually pledged loyalty to the Islamic State some time ago, and it's only just really a few months ago that that was accepted and they were officially made members of the Islamic State. So you've got it coming from those two directions: from the north of the country and then in from across the Pakistani border.

JW: So we’re not talking about exports from Iraq and Syria; we're talking about locals who have adopted the ISIS brand name.

RZ: They’re locals, but they’re not just Afghans; they're also Pakistanis. Just to be clear. It's "local" in that it's the same human beings who'd been involved in the conflicts previously, but they're not necessarily all Afghan citizens.

Although I think we would be crazy not to consider the possibility that there will be an increase of what for this conflict would be considered "foreign fighter" involvement. That is sort of the Islamic State model: They infuse some of these conflicts with international money and international expertise. I would not be surprised if we started to hear about that.

JW: What are their aims, in as much as they have concrete goals? What are they trying to accomplish?

RZ: To the extent that I understand it, I would say the avowed goals are the creation of the caliphate and the return of the "glory" of Khorasan province. As you probably know, Khorasan is a historical name that's given to that area.

I think what interests me is really to see their revealed preferences, their sort of de facto on-the-ground goals, which tend to be battling the Taliban for influence.

That's one of the interesting dynamics you have here, and one of the major dilemmas for the US and other international players, in terms of dealing with the situation in Afghanistan right now. You've got this "Is the enemy of my enemy my friend?" thing going on. But who is actually "my enemy" in this situation? They both are, but what am I rooting to have happen?

Some of it I think, at an individual level, is fighters who lost out during the Mullah Omar succession fight, and they kind of said, "We'll get a better deal, we'll individually have more freedom and more influence if we reflag and go to another organization." I think it's undoubtedly folks who are opposed to the idea of Taliban negotiations, but I think some of it is just wanting the power, the influence, the money.

I do think that their goals, the avowed goals of creating an Islamic caliphate, I think that's absolutely what ISKP wants, but I think these sort of very tactical-level, personal, institutional-type goals are also just really fascinating, at least to me.

JW: How is the Taliban reacting? Obviously they're fighting back, but how has that played out on the ground? Are they just fighting for influence? Is it because the Taliban learned its lesson with sheltering Osama bin Laden? Or is it just more of a local power struggle?

RZ: This is a complicated one because the Taliban’s reactions right now are dictated by a wide variety of factors, of which the Islamic State is really just one.

[Mullah Akhtar Mohammad] Mansour [who took over leadership of the Taliban after the death of Mullah Omar] is trying to solidify his leadership of the Taliban, which is still in doubt. Which I think probably also contributes to the timing of things like the [Taliban's] takeover of Kunduz.

There’s also this jockeying with respect to peace negotiations, so for example we've seen a spike in Taliban attacks this week, because there are the four-party talks, or these meetings to discuss the possibility of talks, happening in Islamabad. And you know that when parties are seriously considering coming to the table, they tend to escalate their level of violence.

So it's not surprising that we're seeing the Taliban being motivated by some somewhat inscrutable things right now, just because they've got a lot strategically to contend with. Nangarhar province right now has become largely a battle ground between the Islamic State and the Taliban. That’s where a lot of the fighting between them is playing out.

I don't know if you saw the news this morning about the Islamic State claiming a suicide attack on the Pakistani consulate in Jalalabad. It would make sense if what they're wanting to do is to create problems for Pakistan. Everybody knows that these peace talks are going to happen, and I'm not an optimist on the peace negotiations, but Pakistan has to really be pushing them [the Taliban]. It could be that this is a way of sending out a message.

So the Taliban is reacting by fighting them where they can be fought in the east. In the north, I think you've probably got a more complex situation, and they're probably more wary to engage in the IMU strongholds, because IMU has held those for a very long time. That's not a case of IMU engaging in territorial aggrandizement, I don't think; at least I haven't seen that yet. I think the Taliban are probably more inclined to leave them alone up there.

Looking at Taliban actions, it's very hard to parse what is a response to the Islamic State in particular from what is a response to the succession battles inside the Taliban, because in some ways the Islamic State is also tied into this question of Taliban succession.

To what extent are they trying to galvanize their members so that they feel like they've got a stake in staying in the Taliban? Several months ago they were issuing statements basically saying, "No, we're the premier anti-government group in Afghanistan, and don't you forget it!" If you have to say that you're probably a little nervous.

JW: I was going to ask how the government is handling this, but when it's Afghanistan, the question rather is, "Is the government even handling this?" Are government officials specifically trying to target ISIS, or are they just kind of hoping that the Taliban does the dirty work for them?

RZ: I haven't seen them specifically engaging with ISIS or ISKP, although they may not know precisely whom they're fighting with in certain situations. Initially there were rumors that President [Ashraf] Ghani had told his various government officials not to talk about the Islamic State, and they sort of issued a moratorium on people talking about it. I'm not sure why, probably because he didn't want it to look like there were things that were going out of control. And probably in part because they weren't really sure what they wanted to say.

But right around the time that Ghani made his first trip to the US, that rhetoric seems to have changed radically from not talking about it, and not really considering it a reality, to saying this is a major problem and we need the US to stay engaged, we need the US to help.

There were some who said that was rhetoric to convince the US to stay involved, and there may have been some of that as well, but I don't think it was off-base. I don't think Ghani was crazy to be saying this. Around that time you would hear reports of the Islamic State in Afghanistan every couple of weeks, and now it's something where if you're looking, it's a constant drumbeat; it's near daily you'll see some mention of it in the Afghan press.

They're clearly much more active, they're taken much more seriously by the average Afghan. But to my knowledge there is no Afghan government counter-ISKP strategy.

JW: Sounds about right.

RZ: But I would have been very surprised if there were, just given how long it took to have a counter-Taliban campaign plan for the Afghan government. I haven't seen anything that suggests they've got a clear plan for how to deal with the Islamic State.

JW: So what does all this mean for the future of US involvement there? Do you think that we're likely to see increased troop deployments?

RZ: Obviously I can't speculate on what the next decision will be, but I doubt very much that this administration would do anything that would increase troop numbers, unless you had some black swan incident. But for the range of things my brain is capable of thinking of, I don't really see it.

I don't think that you're hearing a lot of American policymakers or the military establishment being very alarmist about the Islamic State in Afghanistan. People talk about the Islamic State writ large, but specifically with respect to Afghanistan, I don't think we're hearing people saying this is an existential threat to Afghanistan and therefore is a key threat to America's strategic interests.

I think you see people saying this is going to be another challenge that will make it even harder for the Afghan government to do what was already going to be an extraordinarily difficult task, which is building security, building governance, achieving and then maintaining a monopoly on the use of force, or something reasonably approaching that.

JW: Right, it seems like it's just yet another militia to add to the mix of all of the ridiculous numbers of militias that are already on the ground.

RZ: Exactly. For what we can see now, this is not the event that changes things; this is not the movement that changes things. That said, I will say that we historically have a track record of being surprised by things that come out of this region. So who knows?

But from what we can understand now, I don't think anybody thinks this is transformational. But it is important. It's important to watch it for signs of becoming a broader movement.

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