Despite recent activities in the country, Afghanistan remains an unlikely choice for the Islamic State to establish a new Caliphate.
Two attacks against mosques shook Afghanistan within the past two weeks, killing dozens of worshipers and wounding even more. Just this year alone, 84 Shiites have been killed and nearly 200 injured in attacks on mosques. The Islamic State’s branch in Afghanistan – the Islamic State in Khorasan Province – claimed responsibility for most of the attacks, highlighting the group’s increasing presence in the country.
The Islamic State might be gaining more momentum in Afghanistan, but it has to face fierce competition. The Taliban and the Haqqani network are both still very active in the country, with the the former controlling central-eastern and north-western parts, while the the latter is present on the eastern border with Pakistan.
Mosques are not the only targets in the country. That same week, there were at least five attacks on police and military targets, including an ambush on a bus carrying army cadets, killing 15. The Taliban claimed responsibility for all of these attacks, and also for the two rockets landing near NATO’s headquarters in Kabul. It seems like there is room for all, but there is a clear division of labor between the Islamic State and the Taliban, with one targeting mosques and the other military and police establishments and personnel.
Afghanistan: a Possible Location for a New Caliphate?
With the fall of the two main strongholds in the Levant, Mosul in July and Raqqa in October, the role of the Islamic State’s other branches in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia might become more important. With cells and affiliates in war zones or failed states such as Libya, Yemen or Afghanistan, the Islamic State has plenty of possibilities to reinvent its Caliphate. Despite it being a seemingly perfect location, Afghanistan is an unlikely choice.
One reason is the aforementioned competition with the Taliban. According to a recent report published by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the Taliban is slowly but steadily gaining control over territories from the Western-backed Afghan government led by Ashraf Ghani. The Taliban claims to control 34 out of the officially known 400 districts of the country and contests another 167 (where it claims to control between 40% and 99% of the territory). They have significant presence (10-39% control) in 52 districts and minimal presence (0-9% control) in another six. Apart from the territorial power, the Taliban also has a solid financial background. The group’s yearly budget is officially estimated to be around $500 million, but according to Western and Afghan intelligence agencies, this number could be between $1-2 billion. The sources of this budget are wide-ranging, from narcotics production and trade (mainly heroin and hashish), arms, drugs and cigarette smuggling, income from a wide range of commercial businesses (emerald mines, timber concessions and marble quarries), levy of taxes on citizens and businesses in the areas under their control, and finally, kidnappings and extortion.
Despite the open competition, the Islamic State and the Taliban occasionally join forces when it is convenient: in early August more than 50 people were killed in a village of the northern Sar-e-Pul province in a jointly cooperated attack. The two groups recruited forces from other provinces for the attack, and were also joined by Sher Mohammad Ghazanfar, a commander who has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, according to Zabihullah Amani, a spokesman for the provincial governor. Based on a recent UN report, this kind of cooperation is not new. According to the organization, the Islamic State in Afghanistan “tends to enlist partners of convenience and “outsources” terrorist attacks to other groups” such as splinter groups related to the Pakistani Taliban.
The UN report claims that this cooperation can be attributed to two factors, which also explains why we probably won’t see the Caliphate rise in Afghanistan. Firstly, because the Islamic State has not yet established a “viable fighting force” in the country, it simply lacks manpower to be able to continuously carry out large-scale attacks. Secondly, the branch in Afghanistan still largely depends financially on the “core Islamic State” in Iraq and Syria. With the rapid loss of its territory and revenues, the financial support from the Caliphate is dwindling.
The Future of the Islamic State in Afghanistan
Without a viable alternative location for a Caliphate, the loss of its territory in Iraq and Syria will probably force the Islamic State to go underground and, instead of focusing on state-building, function as a terrorist organization relying on smaller cells spread across the world. This seems to be supported by the fact that the branch in Afghanistan has been instructed to develop its own internal funding sources.
Despite its current lack of financial stability and its heavy reliance on the “core Islamic State”, the Afghan branch might see a surge in its manpower, as foreign fighters from the Levant seek to look for new lands to fight for. This claim is also supported by the most recent assessment of The Soufan Group, which finds that the rate of foreign fighters returning home has been slower than expected, mostly because these fighters “generally appear to have had a stronger desire to join something new rather than destroy something old”.
Therefore, with the fall of the Caliphate in the Levant, we might find some of these foreign fighters reappear in Afghanistan. However, lacking robust finances and the appropriate means to maintain a well-organized network, topped with strong competition, it is unlikely they would be able to do more than carry out low-key attacks. Targeting mosques full of unarmed civilians might be the only occasion we hear from the Islamic State in Afghanistan in the near future.
Cover Picture: Naray district in Kunar province, Afghanistan, 2007, © Ricardo’s Photography / flickr