August 31, 2016 4:30 pm JST

Islamic State under pressure in Afghanistan

RYSKELDI SATKE, Contributing writer

BISHKEK -- The strength and influence of Islamic State appear to be under pressure in Afghanistan, despite a deadly suicide bomb attack by an offshoot of the group in Kabul in July that killed 80 people and injured 231.

The IS offshoot, which calls itself the Islamic State in Khorasan Province, has been suffering significant territorial losses, forcing a change of tactics that led to the suicide bombing, analysts say.

More than a year ago, the group's presence prompted Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to warn members of the U.S. Congress of the "terrible threat" the group posed to Afghanistan and Central Asian neighbors Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgystan and Kazakhstan. Ghani's call for more action against the local IS offshoot convinced the Obama administration to postpone plans to reduce U.S. combat troops in Afghanistan last year. 

However, Afghanistan Analysts Network, a Kabul-based think tank that monitors political developments in the country, says ISKP has made "many enemies" since it pledged allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi nearly two years ago.

The group's "sphere of dominance" has dramatically decreased, forcing its fighters to confine themselves to a few districts of the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar, which it was attempting to use as a base from which to establish a presence in Kunar and Nuristan provinces and elsewhere.

The Afghan Taliban is hostile toward ISKP, whose fighters are thought to come mostly from Pakistan's frontier regions, prompting fierce clashes over territory in the last year. Afghan government forces, assisted by the U.S. military and NATO, have also waged campaigns against the group.

Against this background, the deadly ISKP attack on a peaceful protest by minority Shia Hazaras in Kabul in July shows the group is changing tactics and choosing "soft" targets" to gain attention and boost its fighters' morale, according to the think tank.

Lost territory

The group's failures in Afghanistan have coincided with a retreat by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. A multinational military campaign against the group has forced it to abandon two-thirds of captured territory in Iraq, and IS last year lost 20% of its territory in Syria. News reports suggest that IS setbacks in Iraq and Syria have diverted hundreds of foreign fighters to other countries, including Libya.

The U.S. military and NATO generals in Afghanistan said earlier this year that ISKP had lost large chunks of its territory to Afghan government forces. "They've largely been pushed back to the southern parts of Nangarhar province. That area is very, very rugged, it's very mountainous. It's on the border with Pakistan," U.S. Brigadier General Wilson Shoffner told reporters in Kabul in January.

A similar assessment was provided by Brigadier General Charles Cleveland, spokesman for NATO and U.S forces in Afghanistan. "U.S., NATO and Afghan troops are winning against Daesh in the battlefield, and the insurgent group has lost large parts of its territories in the country, particularly in the eastern province of Nangarhar," Cleveland said, using an alternative name for IS.

The group's Afghan offshoot suffered another blow last month when a U.S. drone strike killed its leader, Hafeez Saeed Khan. Pentagon spokesman Gordon Trowbridge said that "Khan's death affects [IS] recruiting efforts and will disrupt [its] operations in Afghanistan and the region."

The U.S. military is moving additional troops to eastern Afghanistan to defeat ISKP near the country's border with Pakistan. "Their seemingly main role is to boost combat effectiveness of the Afghan troops, helping with coordination, providing intelligence, directing airstrikes etc, and not so much as a fighting force," said Thomas Ruttig, co-director of AAN.

Russia and Central Asian states have repeatedly expressed concerns about the rise of IS in Afghanistan, which they perceive as a serious threat to regional security. The Kremlin-sponsored news network Russia Today reported that IS forces in Afghanistan had reached 10,000 fighters this year. Zamir Kabulov, Russian President Vladimir Putin's special envoy to Afghanistan, insisted in a commentary for Russia Today that ISKP forces were "trained to expand to Central Asia and Russia."

Ruttig said the number of militants who have joined ISKP is unclear, due to conflicting reports from Afghan officials. "Even the U.S. figures given -- between 1,000 and 3,000 -- might be too high, at least its upper margin," said Ruttig.

"[ISKP is] much less active than the Taliban" throughout the country's rugged territory, although the possibility of more bombings by the group "can never be excluded," he said.

Ruttig said he doubted whether the group currently represented a real threat to Afghanistan's northern neighbors. "Such comments are clearly the sign of the 'securitization' of thinking in those country's elites [in Russia and Central Asia] -- who also have a lot to deflect from in their own political practice by constructing an oversized threat," he said.

Central Asian challenge

Nonetheless, some security analysts say the ISKP presence in Afghanistan remains a challenge for the Central Asian states. "Central Asian states, along with focusing on border security -- and that would include counter-narcotics measures -- should work to insure stability by increasing regional cooperation," said Deirdre Tynan, International Crisis Group's Central Asia project director. "ISKP, though [it is] unclear what their ambitions are, is part of that challenge."

Tynan said she was certain that the uptick of violence in western Afghanistan had played a decisive role in a decision by the government in Turkmenistan to increase security along the Afghan-Turkmen border.

Erlan Karin, director of the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies, said the supposed growing presence of ISKP in Afghanistan was an exaggeration. "Yes, there are different groups, or groups that claim that they pledged allegiance to [IS], or that they are acting on behalf of the Province of Khorasan, but in any case, they are unlikely to have capabilities to act on a regional scale.

"For Moscow and several Central Asian countries, the theme of the presence of ISKP in Afghanistan is a very convenient platform to talk about new security threats in Central Asia."

However, Karin said that Afghanistan's integration into Central Asian political and economic structures is a way to build the war-torn country's institutional capacity as a functioning state, arguing that Central Asian governments as well as China should do more to assist the Afghan authorities in countering extremists such as ISKP. 

Regional security experts agree that ISKP's immediate future in Afghanistan is bleak after its failed attempts to gain ground. "Likely, ISKP will continue to exist, with some local bases or underground cells and sympathizers -- on the internet or real -- but as a fringe group," said Ruttig.

"It has missed its opportunity to profit from internal turmoil in the Taliban movement, and there are many who are reluctant to join hands with ISKP, even when there are misgivings with their own leadership."

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