04 December 2019

The US are preparing to leave. Who will make the laws in Kabul – the government, the Taliban or the “Islamic State”?

Monitorul Apărării şi Securităţii

As the US is getting closer to a peace agreement with the Taliban, the increasing presence and aggressivity of the “Islamic State” faction in Afghanistan is causing concern regarding the possibility of achieving peace in this country, as well as regarding the eventual “winner”. At the same time, the premature, if not total, withdrawal of the US and Coalition forces from Afghanistan are creating the premises for strengthening the “Islamic State” and spreading Salafism-Jihadism worldwide.

Image source: Mediafax

The reality of terror, in numbers

While the international community’s entire attention is now concentrated on the “final agreement” between the US and the Taliban, the Afghanistan branch (ISIL-Khorasan or ISIL-K) of the terrorist organization “Islamic State of Iraq and Levant” (ISIL) is becoming more and more visible and aggressive on the country’s territory. On August 17, 2019, ISIL-l carried out a suicidal attack in a wedding hall in the capital Kabul, killing at least 64 civilians and injuring other 182. Later, the death toll increased to 80. This was the worst attack targeting civilians since the last attack carried out by the Taliban, on January 27, 2018, near the old Interior Ministry building, which left 103 dead and other 235 injured.

Currently, ISIL-K has focused its attention on civilians in the provinces of Kabul, Kunar and Nangarhar. From the beginning of this year and until August 27, ISIL-K has killed at least 98 civilians, from a total of 432 killed in the country in terrorism-related incidents, or 22.68% of all deaths. In the similar period of 2018, the rate was 14.55% (117 deaths of a total of 804).

From a human resource standpoint, ISIL-L had troops estimated at 1,000 militants in 2017, and the current numbers are estimated between 2,500-4,000. It is possible for them to grow in the next period by attracting Taliban who oppose the peace agreement, as well as those who feel closer to the extremist Salafist ideology.

In this regard, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction stated, in the report published in April 2019 that “although U.S. officials have consistently asserted that Islamic State Khorasan, the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan, has been degraded on multiple fronts, the group poses a greater security threat to the Afghan people and security forces than it did in 2016.25 As the terrorist group has not been defeated, is not a party to peace negotiations, and continues to execute high-casualty attacks in major Afghan population centers, it remains potent.”

At the same time ,the Department of Defense report presented to the Congress in June 2019 state the following: “Even if a successful political settlement with the Taliban emerges from ongoing talks, Al-Qaida, ISIL-K, and some unknown number of Taliban hardliners will constitute a substantial threat to the Afghan government and its citizens, as well as to the United States and its Coalition partners. This enduring terrorist threat will require the United States, the international community, and the ANDSF to maintain a robust CT capability for the foreseeable future.”

The threat referred in the DOD report is even higher currently, as ISIL is re-constructing its capabilities in its traditional regions in Syria and Iraq.

Will ISIL-K be the “winner” of US-Taliban negotiations?

To answer this question, we must take into account the following:

ISIL-K is a “painful thorn” for the US during negotiations with the Taliban regarding the peace process and withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. This while a part of the Taliban could “migrate” towards ISIL-K due to discontent on the peace agreement.

ISIL-K is a powerful challenger to the Taliban for supremacy of control over Afghanistan, a perspective which is shaping up after the agreement, by planning increasingly more lethal attacks on civilians and local security forces in the future. After the US began withdrawing troops from Syria and Iraq, ISIL started to regroup in the Afghanistan-Pakistan area and in other countries in the area of south and southeastern Asia, changing the action strategy and financing sources in order to profit from the new environment. In these conditions, as talks on withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan intensify, ISIL-K grows into a latent threat.

“The United States will withdraw almost 5,000 troops and will close five bases in Afghanistan over 135 days, according to a draft agreement settled with the Taliban,” US negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad said on Monday (September 2). “The agreement of principle, achieved after months of negotiations with representatives of the Taliban, must be approved by US President Donald Trump before it is signed,” said Khalilzad. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was informed of the draft agreement and will analyze its details before he will express an opinion, his spokesman said on the same day.  In exchange for the gradual withdrawal of US troops, the Taliban commit to not allow Afghanistan to be used by militants to plan attacks against the US and its allies. Which means that the Taliban (or those that will not join ISIL-K), together with Afghan security forces and the Coalition (an almost impossible cooperation by itself) will have to fight against ISIL-K. This while only the top leaders, some of the mid-level leaders and almost none of the Taliban fighters make any difference between ISIL-K and the Taliban. Therefore, it is expect that a large part of the Taliban will join ISIL-K, and the premature withdrawal of US and Coalition forces, coupled with the vulnerabilities of Afghan security forces will substantially reduce ISIL-K’s capabilities to counteract ISIL’s actions in Afghanistan, while also creating premises for extending ISIL actions in South and South-East Asia and, why not, worldwide.

ISIL-K wants to be the “engine” of the global Salafist-Jihadist movement and is closely tied to ISIL’s central leadership, which will most likely use Afghanistan as a platform to relaunch global terrorism. In these conditions, ISIL-K will attempt to establish a caliphate in Central and Southern Asia, which will later be extended as Muslims in the entire region and worldwide will join up. In order to establish this Caliphate, ISIL-K is challenging Al-Qaida and the Taliban both ideologically and through violent actions. One example in this regard is the suicide attack mentioned earlier in Kabul, which the Taliban described as “unjustified”. Such attacks are a multiplier of force and image for ISIL-K, both in front of the worldwide public opinion, as well as of Al-Qaida and the Taliban.

In these conditions, the growing trend of ISIL-K actions will continue, and the attacks, characterized by lethal brutality, especially the suicide ones, will be carried out against both military and civilian targets.


The “outbreak” of peace in Afghanistan is still difficult to achieve. This fact is proven by the attack carried out by the Taliban on September 3, 2019, on the Green Village, which also affected Romania’s Embassy. However, current negotiations offer the possibility of ending the war and of withdrawing most of the international forces, after 18 expensive and bloody years from all belligerents.

Because there is a difference between the ideologies and objectives of ISIL-K and the Taliban (the latter have a national approach, even if terrorist in nature, while ISIL has an international scope of exporting terror) we could say that the latter have the motivation to fight against the former, but do the have the necessary will and resources? We will only know the answer if US-Taliban negotiations continue.

Actually, the agreement includes the gradual withdrawal of US forces in exchange for guaranteeing the fact that Afghanistan will not be used by militants to plan attacks against the US and its allies. As I previously stated, there are no differences between the Taliban and ISIL-K, and each group reaches its objectives through violence which affects the daily lives of the Afghan people. As a consequence, the agreement asks Afghans to resolve their internal problems on their own, but at the same time to protect the US and its allies of eventual “militant” attacks. Which, I wonder?

If the US decides to speed up its troop withdrawal forces from Afghanistan, without offering the necessary material and financial support for the Afghan Government, Afghan security forces and, why not, for the “moderate” Taliban, this country will deepen its crisis, immediately after the US forces leave.

Translated by Ionut Preda