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Millennial Letters

Has Islamic State Entered Afghanistan?

In late February, 31 men, mostly from the Shiite Hazara minority, were kidnapped in Afghanistan, and remain held hostage. This week, five Hazara men were beheaded in the remote eastern district of Malestan, and 36 civilians were killed and 125 wounded in a suicide bombing outside a bank in the city of Jalalabad. These attacks have shaken an Afghan population hardened by decades of war, not just because of their brutality, but because of the whispered name some believe to be behind them: the Islamic State of Khorasan. But how real is the threat from this new group?

The Afghanistan-Pakistan region is a natural target for Islamic State expansion not only because the region has limited government and military, but also because of its history as home to mujahedin movements. Indeed, the very name Khorasan is a reference to the historical name of the region, one some associate with a hadith of the Koran heralding an Islamic caliphate. In January, ISK was formally made part of the Islamic State movement, with a former Pakistani Taliban senior leader, Hafiz Khan Saeed, named as its head. The bulk of ISK is thought to be in Pakistan, but the group is trying to make inroads into Afghanistan.

That said, the group’s actual ability to operate in Afghanistan appears rather limited. The Taliban remains the country’s preeminent armed opposition group, a position it will not willingly relinquish. In fact, there are those who believe the Taliban may be behind the recent attacks, adopting the Islamic State’s signature brutality in the beheadings.

Of the three recent incidents of terror described above, only the bombing in Jalalabad was claimed as the work of the ISK by a purported spokesman for the group. The mass kidnapping appears to be the work of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, though that northern Afghanistan group has allegedly pledged its support to the Islamic State. And though the beheading of the Hazara men has not been claimed as the work of any group, local government officials suggested that the ISK was involved.

In several statements recently, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has highlighted ISK as a grave threat to Afghanistan, despite its limited resources and questionable threat potential. For international actors hoping for a smooth exit from Afghanistan, this may seem hyperbolic. The international community has been more measured in its discussion of the threat, asking whether it is new, or simply the same fighters under a different name. But the truth is that even a small threat from ISK could have a significant destabilizing effect on Afghanistan’s future. Even the same players, with fresh strategic direction and cash, could change the security picture in the Afghan-Pakistan region.

Many Afghans, particularly religious minorities, fear the Islamic State’s brand of brutality, and a loss of confidence in the government could result if the population feels these attacks cannot be controlled. Already there are tents pitched in the center of Kabul by Hazaras who feel that the government is not doing enough to rescue their kidnapped men, despite Ghani’s statement that the government has spent more than $6 million searching for them. And ISK may have a disruptive effect on key national outcomes like the peace process with the Taliban. By serving as a home for disaffected Taliban members who do not desire peace, ISK could splinter the insurgency and prolong the fighting.

There is no reason to be alarmist about the strength of ISK at this point, and the United States is already doing a great deal to support the Afghan government to manage its security. But the tendency of the international community is to view threats through a security-focused lens, and in this case it may be too narrow. Afghanistan’s balance remains supremely delicate, and the international community must learn to view ISK not simply as a terrorist threat, but as a political spoiler.

Rebecca Zimmerman is an associate policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and a fellow with the Truman National Security Project.

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