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Afghanistan turmoil

ISIS-K's Afghan play worries Kabul, Beijing and Islamabad

Militant Sunni group attracts disaffected Taliban, former government soldiers

ISIS-K, Islamic State's regional affiliate, has recruited both disaffected Taliban militants and former government soldiers. (Source photo by Reuters and Getty Images)

ISLAMABAD -- The growing strength of ISIS-K, the Islamic State's regional affiliate in Afghanistan, has unsettled both the new Taliban regime in Kabul and neighboring countries, including China, Pakistan and Iran.

Leveraging the U.S. withdrawal agreement with the Taliban, ISIS-K has positioned itself as Afghanistan's last jihadi movement. It has been recruiting from within the Taliban as well as among transnational and ethnic separatist movements in the region. It has also drawn from Afghanistan's former military ranks.

"So far, the ISIS-K leadership is satisfied with its multipronged strategy and progress in Afghanistan," an ISIS-K leader in Nangarhar Province told Nikkei Asia.

"ISIS-K's local successes in Afghanistan have helped attract rebels of various ethnicities in the region and gain international attention," the leader said in a rare comment to the press. The militant group generally bans members from speaking to news organizations.

ISIS-K's expanded area of operations in Afghanistan has increased the risk of infiltration. Hibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban's supreme leader, issued a letter on Nov. 4 ordering his provincial commanders to check into the backgrounds of all their fighters.

"Akhundzada has also asked Taliban commanders to socialize with the fighters on the streets as part of the Taliban's counter strategy to stop defections," said Jan, a Taliban commander in Kabul, who asked not to be fully identified.

On Nov. 2, an ISIS-K suicide bomber set off explosives near the entrance to Kabul's main military hospital, killing at least 20 people and injuring dozens more. After the attack, an ISIS-K gunman posing as a Taliban soldier bringing wounded people to the hospital, killed Maulvi Hamdullah Mokhlis, the Taliban's senior military strategist, and other Taliban members when they arrived on the scene.

ISIS-K's strategy targets disgruntled midlevel Taliban commanders. It is exploiting the new government's reluctance to impose harsh restrictions on women, its amnesties for former officials and its willingness to cooperate with China and the U.S. These policies are meant to keep Afghanistan afloat and garner global support.

"Such compromises have been pushing a significant number of the Taliban's young street cadres, who are more radical than the leadership, to join ISIS-K," Abdul Jabbar, a former operative for Afghanistan's intelligence service who took part in a crackdown on ISIS-K in Nangarhar in 2019, told Nikkei.

Because ISIS-K pays its fighters handsomely, militants from the Taliban and other groups, such as the Taliban faction of Mullah Manan Niazi, a former Taliban governor for Herat and Balkh provinces, have also defected in large numbers, according to Jabbar.

A significant number of former Afghan security operatives, who were left exposed when Kabul fell, have also joined ISIS-K to escape Taliban retribution.

"In the past, Islamic State used a similar strategy in Iraq to absorb thousands of Saddam Hussein's soldiers and Iraq's Sunni-dominated Baath Party," said Jabbar.

ISIS-K is highlighting militants of various ethnic backgrounds -- particularly Uyghur and Baloch people -- who carry out high-profile suicide bombings against Shiites. The Sunni militant group's overall strategic plan includes unsettling countries in the region, particularly China, Pakistan and Iran.

When it claimed responsibility for the Oct. 8 suicide attack on a Shiite mosque in Kunduz that killed more than 70 people, ISIS-K revealed the bomber was a Uyghur. It said the assault targeted Shiites because Tehran had mobilized the Fatemiyoun Division, a group of Afghan Shiites, to counter Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The bombing was also a response to the Taliban government for its "willingness" to do Beijing's bidding and deport Uyghur militants of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement to China.

An anguished mother at Kabul's Indira Gandhi Children's Hospital following explosions at a nearby military hospital on Nov. 2.   © Reuters

ISIS-K also identified one of the two bombers in an Oct. 16 suicide attack on a Shiite mosque in Kandahar as a Baloch. Baloch separatists have for decades waged war in Pakistan and Iran. In recent years, they have targeted Chinese interests, including projects linked to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor -- the flagship Pakistani component of China's great Belt and Road Initiative, an infrastructure program connecting Asia to Europe, Africa and beyond costing over $50 billion.

Islamabad and Beijing have recently succeeded in pressuring the Taliban to crack down on Pakistani Baloch separatist groups operating from sanctuaries in Afghanistan. Uyghur militants from Badakhshan Province in Afghanistan's northeast have also been ejected. This area connects Xinjiang in China to eastern and central Afghanistan via the narrow Wakhan Corridor.

Worried over ISIS-K's recent attacks in Pakistani tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan, Islamabad has fed intelligence to the Taliban about ISIS-K.

"Islamic State appears to be demonstrating that its regional branch, primarily based in Afghanistan, and its espoused ideology can transcend ethnicity to a notable extent," Lucas Webber, a researcher specializing in nonstate actors and militant organizations, and an editor of the Militant Wire outlet, told Nikkei.

"In another sense, ISIS-K is likely warning these governments -- signaling that such fighters could be used to target Chinese or Pakistani nationals in the future, either inside of Afghanistan or externally," said Webber.

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