On February 29th, President Trump announced a historic peace agreement with the Taliban in Afghanistan. The deal came after nearly two decades of American presence in the region. The provisional agreement hinges on three major points: complete withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from the region; open talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban; and a pledge from the Taliban that they would prevent al-Qaeda from operating within regions that they controlled.
The agreement also called for the U.S. to close five major military bases within 135 days, and to commit to ending economic sanctions against the Taliban by the end of August. Additionally, according to the agreement, the Afghan government has to release 5,000 Taliban fighters currently incarcerated in Afghan jails.
While the peace talks struggle to find their footing, recent violence across much of the country suggests that Afghanistan remains precariously poised to slide into the hands of ISIS.
The Islamic State – Khorasan
IS-K (the Islamic State of Khorasan) is an ISIS faction whose purpose is to gain ground in Afghanistan to destabilize the Afghan government, erode trust in democracy, and sow sectarianism and instability across the region. Over the past few years, IS-K has cemented a foothold in the region by exploiting the porous borders with Pakistan and Tajikistan. It has siphoned off fighters, arms, and resources from the Taliban and the Afghan government forces alike.
According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), IS-K is “responsible for the deaths of 338 civilians in neighboring Pakistan since January of 2017 largely [as] a result of attacks targeting electoral and sectarian institutions.” In a 2018 report, CSIS estimated that IS-K had grown to roughly 800 fighters.
Recent events suggest that IS-K has grown and is gaining in confidence. Over the past several weeks, Afghanistan has been pockmarked by nearly daily attacks across nine different provinces. While some have been claimed by the Taliban, several have been linked to IS-K.
One of the most daring and complex attacks attributed to IS-K took place on August 3 when a group of fighters stormed a prison complex in Jalalabad in the eastern province of Nangarhar on the border with Pakistan. According to several reports, the prison was holding upwards of 1,700 prisoners at the time of the attack, most of whom were known Taliban and IS-K fighters. The battle lasted some 20 hours and resulted in more than 1,000 inmates attempting to flee. The BBC reports that an estimated 300 fighters remain at large.
Raids of this type are a common tactic among terrorist groups in the region. But the August 3 prison raid points to two troubling truths: IS-K is growing more brazen; and it’s recruiting.
Peace Talks and the Loya Jirga
The tripartite talks between the Afghan government, the Taliban and the U.S. are widely seen as a step toward bringing peace to the region after decades of conflict and instability. But the proposed release of 5,000 former Taliban fighters as a precondition has been contentious. Further concerns were raised about 400 prisoners on the list owing to the high-profile nature of their crimes.
According to reporting by TOLO News, Afghanistan’s premier news outlet, “[out of the] 400 prisoners in question, 156 of them have been sentenced to death, 105 of them are accused of murder, 34 of them are accused of kidnapping that led to murder, 51 of them are accused of drug smuggling, 44 of them are on the blacklist of the Afghan government and its allies, 6 of them are accused of other crimes, 4 are unknown.” Roughly half of the prisoners are accused by the Afghan government of masterminding attacks on embassies, public squares, and government offices.
The outcry about the release of these remaining 400 prisoners led to the calling of a national Loya Jirga, a centuries-old special legal assembly rooted in traditional Pashtun tribal custom.
Though not used regularly, the Loya Jirga is called upon in times of crisis. It is an honored method of resolving large-scale disputes. The Loya Jirga has convened eight times since 2001. In some instances, it was used to settle political matters such as ratifying the Afghan Constitution in 2003. But of those eight, the majority concerned how to deal with the Taliban.
On August 7, President Ashraf Ghani presided over the ninth Loya Jirga to determine the fate of the remaining 400 Taliban fighters. After two days of talks, Ghani announced that the council, consisting of over 3,200 Afghan delegates, had approved the release of the remaining 400 Taliban captives.
The release of these Taliban fighters is, on its own, a highly contestable move. In a statement on August 6, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo acknowledged that the release of Taliban prisoners was an “unpopular,” but a necessary move to “lead to an important result long sought by Afghans and Afghanistan’s friends: reduction of violence and direct talks resulting in a peace agreement and an end to the war.”
He continued in saying that “the Taliban have also committed to significantly reduce violence and casualties during the talks” and that the United States “intends to hold the Taliban to these commitments.”
But the peace talks could have the opposite effect on the ground. Rumblings from the region suggest that ISIS has appointed Shahab al-Muhajir as the new leader of IS-K. Al-Muhajir, an Iraqi Haqqani operative who has previously been linked to al-Qaeda and the Taliban, appears to have joined ISIS. If the reports are true, this suggests that IS-K is being revitalized by ISIS. And as the Taliban gain legitimacy from the negotiations, there is a likelihood that IS-K will recruit fighters from the organization, further increasing their numbers and operational capabilities.
In an August 3 tweet, Masoud Andarabi, acting Minister of Interior of Afghanistan and form Deputy Director of the National Directorate of Security, confirmed al-Muhajir’s appointment and connection to the Haqqani network.
Shahab Almahajir, the newly appointed leader of Islamic State of Khorasan Province-ISKP is a Haqani member. Haqani & the Taliban carry out their terrorism on a daily basis across Afg & when their terrorist activities does not suit them politically they rebrand it under ISKP.
— Masoud Andarabi (@andarabi) August 3, 2020
A special investigative report by the BBC connected al-Muhajir to the August 3 prison raid in Nangarhar. The report suggests that he masterminded the operation, likely to quickly amass trained fighters. The mountainous border region between the two nations has always been an unruly and largely porous, allowing the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and now IS-K, fighters to pass freely from one country to the other.
The nature of this border raises further fears. A report submitted to the United Nations Security Council in July indicated that there are more than 6,000 Pakistani fighters among the ranks of the Taliban. Afghan government forces engaged in skirmishes in the region have reported finding Pakistani ID cards among the belongings of the casualties.
The recent Loya Jirga edict seemed to acknowledge that foreign fighters may have been included in the contested 400 prisoners it elected to release. It stated that if foreign fighters were discovered among them, “they must be handed over to their countries with valid guarantee.” Whether any Pakistani fighters could return to Afghanistan through the porous border region in support of IS-K after their release is unknown.
A New Silk Road
While the immediate role of IS-K is to sow violence and chaos, its long-term goal is to carve out access to natural resources inside the country. Afghanistan is rich in precious metals, copper, chromite, natural gas, and petroleum. Destabilization of the government through kinetic attacks will fragment security and open opportunities for ISIS to harvest these resources.
To extract the resources, ISIS needs tactical intelligence and viable footholds in contested provinces. To continue the raids, the growing IS-K faction needs the logistical support of ISIS and access to weapons, money, and additional fighters. Afghanistan’s location means that ISIS will be able to attract major global players — China and Russia are obvious benefactors — as well as more local organizations in neighboring Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
In addition to gaining access to valuable resources, an ISIS resurgence in Afghanistan could prove to be crucial to recruitment in other regions. Still, continued U.S. investment in the country comes at a price — about $50 billion a year. That is far too high.
As the Taliban peace talks press onward and U.S. forces in Afghanistan are drawn down in keeping with the agreement’s preconditions, questions about Afghanistan’s future linger, begging the question: Will a peace agreement with the Taliban mean the rise of ISIS in Afghanistan?