After years of fighting against the Taliban and military operations by Afghan and U.S. forces in Afghanistan’s mountainous east, an affiliate of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group has proved resilient.
But the question is now whether the Afghan group, which calls itself the Khorasan Province of IS, can survive the killing of founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a U.S. military operation in northwestern Syria over the weekend.
Abdul Satar Mirzakwal, governor of Afghanistan’s eastern Kunar Province, is optimistic about the group’s dissolution. Together with neighboring Nuristan and Nangarhar provinces, the region has been the main theater for IS since its emergence in Afghanistan in early 2015.
Mirzakwal sees an immediate operational effect of Baghdadi’s killing. “His killing will have an impact on the morale of the fighters,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “It will disrupt their leadership and management capabilities in the area.”
Arif Sahar, a former senior Afghan government adviser, says the death of Baghdadi will have significant “psychosocial” implications for the rank and file of IS fighters operating in Afghanistan.
“It sinks the already-fragmented political structures of the group into further fragmentation,” he told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website. “It becomes extremely hard for the top political and military command to keep the group’s momentum and reenergize its human capital.”
Sahar, now an international security and terrorism researcher in the United Kingdom’s Sheffield Hallam University, however, warns against too much optimism. “As history has repeated itself many times in teaching us a lesson, a displacement of leadership does not necessarily guarantee us a safer world,” he said, citing the example of Al-Qaeda, which has bounced back numerous times from leadership losses.
In Kabul, Baghdadi’s killing is welcome news. “[Afghanistan] welcomes the news of his demise,” Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah wrote on Twitter. “Afghanistan -- a country that suffers as a result of the false notions espoused by the brutal Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.”
U.S. Army General Scott Miller, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, emphasizes the need to remain vigilant against the group.
"Daesh in Afghanistan was in communication with Daesh in Syria,” he recently told a group of Afghan journalists in Brussels while referring to IS by its Arabic acronym. “This particular terrorist group has been particularly dangerous. The idea is dangerous.”
Miller says they are concerned about the group’s efforts to recruit young Afghans. “We always operate against Daesh whenever we see them."
Last week, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said the transatlantic alliance wants to make sure that “the caliphate [IS] lost in Iraq and Syria is not reestablished in Afghanistan.”
During the past four years, IS has attempted to control territories in eastern and northern Afghanistan. While Afghan forces and the Taliban have reclaimed most territories from IS, the group is still mounting large-scale terrorist attacks.
Afghan and NATO officials blame the group for the October 18 bomb attack that killed 69 people inside a mosque in a remote village in Nagarhar’s Haska Maina district. IS has frequently claimed credit for attacking Afghanistan’s predominantly Shi’ite Hazara minority.
In his report to the Security Council in September, UN chief Antonio Guterres said that between mid-June and early September, 183 incidents were attributed to IS fighters, which is nearly double the 93 incidents recorded in the same period last year. The group is believed to command thousands of fighters, including some from the Middle East.
Michael Kugelman, a senior South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a think tank in Washington, says IS in Afghanistan faces tough competition from the Taliban.
“The most powerful militant player, the Taliban, is fighting IS,” he noted. “While IS has developed a bastion in parts of Afghanistan, and it has maintained the ability to carry out strikes, it has struggled to become the behemoth that it once was in the Middle East.”
But he says there is possibility of a merger between Al-Qaeda and IS. “If there's a reunion, Islamic State would be welcomed by all the terror outfits in Afghanistan, and that could pose a major challenge to the U.S. counterterrorism mission there,” he said.
Sahar urges sustained military pressure and greater transparency in U.S. counterterrorism objectives and “sustained measures to dry up financial, military, and political sources of insurgency in Afghanistan” as a way to prevent the group from growing and continuing to threaten the country.
Observers say escalating fighting between the Taliban and government forces or weakening government control over the countryside might also provide IS the opportunity to recover from its losses and renew its quest for a caliphate in the country.