Afghan intelligence officials reportedly captured a deputy leader of the Islamic State-Khorasan (the Islamic State’s affiliate in Afghanistan, also referred to as ISK) near the city of Herat in September. Herat is more than 1,000 kilometers west of ISK’s stronghold in Nangarhar province, and much of Herat province and the surrounding region is contested by the Taliban. While details on the captured ISK leader remain vague, it is highly likely that his presence in Afghanistan’s west signals that the group is attempting to expand into Taliban-contested areas and draw defectors under the shadow of Taliban-U.S. negotiations.
ISK’s influence and size have persevered if not grown, despite intense fighting with its Taliban rivals and efforts by the United States and its Afghan and NATO partners to crush the group throughout Afghanistan and Pakistan. The group’s resilience in the face of extensive leadership targeting is due partly to its ability to forge alliances with other local and regional militant groups. Sending a high-ranking leader on a recruitment mission far from its base of support was a risky gamble and indicates both ISK’s sustained organizational capacity and its ambition to expand beyond the confines of Afghanistan’s east.
Researchers have argued that ISK’s expansion could have an effect on peace talks and motivate the Taliban to come back to the negotiating table soon in order to prevent its own decline and stem the rise of its main insurgent rival. At the same time, peace talks with the United States may marginalize some factions within the Taliban and provide ISK a unique opportunity to appeal to possible defectors in the Taliban’s ranks who may lose out on a settlement. Disaffected Taliban leaders have defected to ISK in the past, and the current Taliban leadership will be keen to prevent any more side-switching as the war carries on.
Since ISK officially declared allegiance to the Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in January 2015, the group has suffered frequent leadership losses at the hands of Afghan, NATO and U.S. forces, and it has engaged in conflicts with other militant groups. Although the capture of a deputy leader is a significant win for its enemies, ISK has endured despite losing more than 50 leaders of comparable rank between 2015 and 2018.
For almost five years, ISK has tried relentlessly to expand beyond the confines of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, including into areas contested by the Taliban. But unlike in the east of Afghanistan near Nangarhar, and even in the north in Jawzjan province where the group made limited headway in establishing its presence, ISK has struggled to build capacity in Herat province. It has managed to launch only six attacks in the province since 2015, drastically fewer than it inflicted in Nangarhar and Kabul.
The presence of a deputy leader in the area, however, signals ISK’s efforts to change its fortunes in Afghanistan’s west. Local civilians recently raised concerns regarding increasing numbers of ISK militants in several districts throughout Herat province, around the same time as his capture.
ISK’s expansion efforts in Afghanistan align with the recent strategic shift outlined by al-Baghdadi, who remains alive and in hiding despite territorial losses in Iraq and Syria. In a rare speech released online, al-Baghdadi encouraged his followers to pivot from “enduring and expanding” to “expanding and spreading.” The Islamic State’s core leadership, based in Iraq and Syria, is invested in making gains in Central and South Asia and is involved in oversight of ISK. In April, they replaced ISK’s top commander after he struggled to extend the group’s reach beyond Nangarhar and Kunar, and the following month they reorganized the group’s structure. Sending a senior leader across the country, whether to bolster its ranks or to coordinate more attacks, may indicate that ISK is trying to demonstrate to the core that it is up to the task.
Conservative estimates place ISK’s force size somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 fighters, one of the largest contingents for a terrorist group in the region. As the United States grows weary of its war in Afghanistan and the numbers of militant and civilian deaths continue to climb at astounding rates, it is important to remember the value of U.S. assistance to its Afghan partners in keeping groups like ISK locked down. Leadership targeting continues to play a vital role in containing ISK to its stronghold in Nangarhar and in limiting the group’s capabilities to inspire and direct attacks in the West, draw recruits from the United States and other nations, and receive top-down command and control from the Islamic State core in Iraq and Syria.
While ISK has recruited primarily within Afghanistan and Pakistan and focused on local targets, it is difficult to determine what effect fewer U.S. boots on the ground would have on ISK’s abilities and aspirations to pose a threat on the international level. Regardless, ISK consistently attacks Western interests in the region, and it remains one of the preeminent affiliates within the Islamic State’s transnational network. Allowing the group breathing room to expand and explore the possibility of targeting operations beyond the immediate theater would be a mistake.
That said, a successful counterterrorism campaign against ISK would not need to rely on extensive U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan. Leadership targeting must be part of a broader strategy that relies on other kinetic and intelligence operations that should include cutting off the group’s financial flows, disrupting its links to local and regional militant groups, and coordinating a strong response among nations in the region. The United States should continue to aggressively assert this multifaceted approach—particularly in pursuing a multinational coordinated response—and should devote resources and personnel appropriate to the threat level. Special forces trainers, intelligence operations, and manned and unmanned air power will be critical components.
The path forward in Afghanistan is neither clear nor simple. The rush to draw down U.S. forces should not come at the expense of a rising ISK, and it should include a counterterrorism campaign appropriately tailored to the threat.