For the last month, American and Afghan forces have been engaged in a new offensive against an Islamic State offshoot based in Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan. The Trump administration dropped what it boasted was the biggest non-nuclear bomb on the group’s hide-outs on April 13; a militant leader and two American soldiers have been killed in the operations. An American military spokesman claimed there was a “very good chance” that the group would be eradicated in Afghanistan in 2017.
But the United States obsession with the Islamic State in Khorasan — a minor group in Afghanistan — distracts attention from a more urgent task: negotiating a peace deal with the Taliban, which controls close to half of Afghanistan.
Two years after its emergence in Afghanistan, the Islamic State affiliate is still struggling to consolidate its organizational capacity. The few major attacks it has claimed were mostly sectarian and aimed at soft targets: two gatherings of Shiites and a hospital in Kabul, and, in Pakistan, a Sufi shrine in Sindh and a hospital in Quetta.
How much planning and organization for these attacks came from the group’s command based in a mountainous valley in eastern Afghanistan is not clear. In a region with a plethora of small militant outfits constantly rebranding themselves, claims of such attacks in distant cities cannot be taken at face value. There is no evidence of the group’s having established an operational presence in Quetta and Sindh.
The group’s virtual command center is tucked away in the Mamand Valley in Nangarhar, which has become the focus of the American-Afghan offensive. Founding leaders of the group, almost all of them now dead, were commanders from the Pakistani Taliban. The new leader is a little-known former member of the Afghan Taliban, but militants from the Pakistani Taliban still play a dominant role in the leadership.
Still, its foothold has shrunk by more than half from its peak in summer 2015. It controls pockets of territory in four out of approximately 400 districts of Afghanistan, which is hardly proof of the group’s potency given the vast amount of ungoverned space in Afghanistan and in Pakistan’s tribal areas. It lost most of its territory to the Taliban.
According to the United States military’s estimates, the Islamic State in Khorasan now has 600 fighters, down from 3,000 in 2016. Most of its members, including the entire first-tier leadership, were killed in American airstrikes. It might have a wider appeal than its footprint indicates, but it is still a minor group by Afghan standards.
Although the Islamic State in Khorasan and the Taliban follow politically contrasting goals and constitute different types of threats, the Taliban’s manpower is about 50 times greater, according to estimates by Afghan and Western analysts in Kabul.
A resurgent Taliban is the biggest threat to the Afghan government, morphing into a shadow government that controls or contests more than 40 percent of the country, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, Washington’s watchdog in Afghanistan.
Having been eclipsed by the Taliban, the Islamic State seems to be focused on marketing itself to potential and active jihadists. For that, it needs publicity. President Trump’s big bomb provided exactly that. The destruction of a network of caves is the perfect advertisement to lure radicals undecided about joining a jihadist group and attract members from other groups.
After the bombing and the subsequent military operations, the Islamic State in Khorasan’s radio station in Nangarhar has been roaring. One preacher called the bomb a blessing from God that affirmed the group’s jihadist status. This is a message skillfully tailored for young radicals, since for them American hostility is a stamp of a group’s credibility. The more a group is targeted by the United States, the greater its jihadi legitimacy.
The United States military’s increased engagement will attract more foreign militants to Afghanistan to wage a jihad against the Americans. A less prominent role for the United States on the battlefield and a less passionate rhetoric of confrontation would perhaps improve the chances that Afghan forces will vanquish the group.
Sustained conflict in Afghanistan has created a vast ungoverned space, confining the Afghan government to cities and allowing the Taliban to be the dominant nonstate actor and the Islamic State to establish a presence. Poor governance, political bickering, rampant corruption and unemployment make joining the opposition, which in the Afghan context stands for the insurgency, a popular alternative.
Unless the two main parties to the conflict, the government and the Afghan Taliban, come together in a peace process that absorbs as many insurgents as possible, groups like the Islamic State will continue emerging and expanding. There is no choice but to start a dialogue with the Taliban.
Borhan Osman is a researcher with the Afghanistan Analysts Network.