The Devil’s Proxy: ISKP in Afghanistan

ISKP has exploited decades of sectarian violence and instability to gain a foothold in Afghanistan. Civil society is critical in the fight against it.

For years, parties to Afghanistan’s brutal decades-long war have swapped accusations about each other, with everyone from the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) to Afghanistan’s Vice President, Amrullah Saleh, accusing the Taliban of supporting the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP) and vice versa. Of course, the reality on the ground is far more complex — and all the while, ISKP continues to cause chaos, seemingly attacking anything that moves.

ISKP most recently took responsibility for a barrage of rocket attacks in Kabul City on November 21st, claiming their target was the city’s “Green Zone,” an area which hosts the Presidential Palace, numerous foreign embassies, and police, military, and intelligence headquarters — as well as shops, bazaars, street vendors, and thousands of civilian residents. In all, 28 rockets were fired, reportedly killing at least 8 people. This attack came just weeks after a horrifying attack on students and faculty at Kabul University, which killed 22.

With conspiracy theories constantly circulating around the group, one constant and indisputable factor is the degree to which ISKP has enacted violence against minorities. A particularly bellwether example, on May 12th, a horrific attack targeted a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)-supported hospital in Kabul, specifically based in the predominantly Shia Hazara neighborhood of Dashte Barchi. At least 13 were killed when ISKP militants wearing police uniforms burst into the hospital. At least two of those killed were reportedly infants. While no group formally claimed responsibility for the horrific attack, US State Department Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad blamed the ISKP.

This assessment is consistent with what we know about ISKP’s operational strategy, and their unique brand of ultra-sectarianism. ISKP has proven capable of advancing its aims in the most violent and destructive manner possible by attacking soft targets in specific neighborhoods.

While researchers continue to analyze the group in an effort to understand rhyme or reason, bizarre and contradicting intelligence and news reports continue to confuse counter terrorism experts, government officials, and the media alike.

Islamic State Internationale

21 year old Muhammad Muhsin was reportedly killed in a US drone strike on June 18th, 2019. However, these claims were proven wrong when Muhsin, a young engineer from the southern Indian state of Kerala, appeared in a “Martyrdom” video aired by the Islamic State’s Amaq News Agency on March 26th, 2020, claiming credit for a gruesome sectarian suicide attack on a Sikh Gurdwara in Kabul. DNA testing by the authorities in his home state later proved he was responsible for the attack.

150 Sikhs at Gurdwara Har Rai Sahib were stalked, shot down, and had grenades lobbed at them shortly after worshippers concluded morning prayers. The attack lasted 6 hours before Afghan security forces finally managed to free some hostages and kill the ISKP militants. 25 people died, including one child, with at least 8 others injured. Showing no mercy, ISKP attacked the Sikh community again two days later, this time at a Sikh crematorium where funeral services for the slain were being held — denying the community even a moment to mourn.

In response, the Afghan security forces initiated a series of raids across the country, targeting key ISKP operatives and infrastructure. 10 days after the temple attack, Afghan forces conducted a raid leading to the arrest of the alleged emir of ISKP, Abdullah Orakzai, who today goes by several names including Mawlawi Abdullah and Aslam Farooqui.

Several weeks later, the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) carried out a joint operation with the Afghan National Army’s Special Forces in the Karte Naw district of Kabul, leading to the arrest of the Islamic State leader for South and East Asia, known as Zia ul-Haq or Abu Omar al-Khorasani. Yet none of this seemed to slow the group’s advance, or halt the terrifying number of terror attacks carried out by ISKP militants, who have conducted numerous raids despite intensive scrutiny by Afghan security forces in the months since.

As seen in the past with assassinations of various ISKP and Taliban leaders, militant groups have proven highly adaptive to changing conditions, growing and evolving into increasingly lethal and destructive forces as they face adverse elements. This means a consistent anti-sectarian battle must take place on the root level, with dialogue contained within the ideological debates of Afghanistan’s young Islamists and civil society circles — especially as youth from diverse circles, including Kabul’s modern city life, continue flocking to ISKP under a variety of sociopolitical, economic, and cultural factors.

Towards an Afghan Antifascism

To protect Shia Hazara, Sikhs, and other ethnic minority groups in Afghanistan, armed engagement with ISKP is unavoidable, as the group clearly has no intention to simply disband. However, a piecemeal counterinsurgency approach has also proven ineffectual — meaning the Afghan government, the Taliban, and the international community will ultimately need to work together on a diverse series of counterinsurgent engagements to eliminate the ISKP menace. This approach is itself quite coalitionally tenuous, as the Taliban and the Afghan government, amid decades of war and sociopolitical instability, have themselves tallied an extensive history of grave abuses against minorities.

The current Afghan “National Unity Government” is mired in chaos, and currently exists in a state of limbo between Ashraf Ghani and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, both of whom claim to be Afghanistan’s sitting president, and neither of whom have a commanding popular mandate to govern the country, despite signing multiple power-sharing agreements over the past 9 years, with the most recent having been signed in May of 2020.

The Taliban, in contrast, spent recent years consolidating control in the territories where the group serves as de facto governing power, and claims sole legitimate authority, by overpowering all other militant groups and purging those within their ranks who were defiant of leadership command. At the same time, the Taliban also sought a soft power engagement by pursuing multilateral diplomatic relations with neighboring states before bothering to speak to the central Afghan government — which the militant group holds in contempt, owing to their historical cooperation with the US government.

Since 2014, the Taliban has also pursued multilateral diplomatic relations with China, which has emerged as a rising power in the region. China ultimately settled into the evolving role of facilitator in several key negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government, including a covert peace talk in May of 2015 which took place in Urumqi.

In recent years, however, perceived Chinese national security interests have overshadowed any effort at brokering a dialogue between warring parties in Afghanistan. Urumqi, the embattled capital of the Chinese province of Xinjiang, is now facing an industrial genocide effort by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials. And on December 25th, the Afghan NDS detained 10 people over charges of espionage and operating a terror cell, alleging the group had been working on behalf of China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS) to collect intelligence on “al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Uyghurs in Afghanistan’s eastern Kunar and Badakhshan province.”

Russia and Iran have also pursued increasingly overt relations with the Taliban, indicating in 2016 that they had been in contact with Taliban representatives and had even supported the group as a partner in the fight against ISKP.

Assessments across the international community, including by the United States government, have been clear: amid over two decades of chaotic war, the Taliban has emerged as the de facto governing party across much of the country, and has summarily emerged as the single most reliable anti-ISIS actor in the region, excluding foreign forces.

This consolidation of domestic sociopolitical control has complemented a holistic propaganda and public relations effort. To shed its image as a sectarian actor and position itself as a group governing on behalf of all Afghans, the Taliban has made overtures towards minority groups in the country. In an effort to stake out legitimacy, the Taliban has for years appointed “shadow governors” in provinces beyond their immediate control — and just weeks before ISKP’s horrific attack on the Shia Hazara neighborhood of Dashte Barchi in Kabul, the Taliban even shared a video interview with Mawlani Mehdi, a Shia Hazara and the Taliban’s shadow governor for Balkhab district in Northern Sari-Pul province.

Recent efforts by the Taliban to obfuscate their sectarian past may be met with skepticism in the Hazara community. The most violent massacre ever to have occurred in the Taliban’s exceptionally violent history happened in August 1998, when the group massacred thousands of Hazaras in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Such attacks continued (on smaller scales) later in the group’s history, including in October 2018, when dozens of Hazaras were killed as the Taliban overtook the Shia-majority district of Khas Uruzgan in Uruzgan province, breaking a previously agreed upon truce between the Taliban and the Hazara community.

Those outside the Hazara community, including the broader international community, may also feel skeptical toward the Taliban’s superficial reform efforts. The group still maintains a relationship with their sectarian Pakistani counterpart Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP), maintains a strong relationship with Al Qaeda, and has continually attacked women’s rights in the country. Their sincere commitment to the peace process is also questionable — as many within the group’s leadership and rank-and-file claim they will not rest until all of Afghanistan is under Taliban control.

Despite a complex sociopolitical backdrop, the Afghan Taliban have emerged as a dominant force on the front line against ISKP, fighting a brutal ground war with the group, which traces its origins to defectors of the Taliban, TTP, and other groups who united under the black standard of the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS). This creates a difficult dynamic for parties which seek to counter multiple terrorist insurgencies in the same region, and an especially difficult dynamic for foreign actors which have historically relied on proxies to enact the finer points of counterinsurgency policy in regions across the world.

The Devil’s Proxy

ISKP militants have engaged in brutal attacks across the country from their stronghold in Eastern Nangarhar province since declaring their allegiance to ISIS in 2015. The initial cadre of ISKP fighters was composed mainly of local Taliban commanders from various districts in Nangarhar province, along with defectors from the Pakistani Taliban, who crossed into Nangarhar via the roughly 100km Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

In Nangarhar alone, ISKP has attacked local media, NGOs, and public marketplaces. They have beheaded members of local resistance groups and targeted various elements of Afghan civil society, but their signature brand has been one of sectarian ultra-violence — and despite conspiracy theories alleging collaboration between the two parties, ISKP has gone to great lengths in their efforts to attack the Taliban.

After several gruesome videotaped beheadings of Taliban fighters were released by ISKP in 2015, the Taliban had finally seen enough, announcing that its “special forces” division had gone to war against the group in Nangarhar.

In the years since, the Taliban has made major gains against ISKP forces in Nangarhar, but ISKP remains a persistent threat.

While various groups on the ground have found success combating ISKP, including the Taliban, Afghan government forces, and local resistance forces, years of infighting have left these groups in a messy struggle for Nangarhar province, with no clear victor emerging from the bloodshed.

Foreign actors have seen similarly limited progress in the fight against ISKP, which has shown strong resilience despite numerous campaigns against the group between 2015 and 2018.

On April 13th, 2017, the US dropped a GBU-43/B MOAB (Massive Ordnance Air Blast) in Nangarhar’s Achin district. Colloquially referred to as the “Mother of All Bombs,” the GBU-43/B-MOAB did little to root out ISKP from their system of bunkers and cave hideouts. Faced with increasingly unconventional warfare, the US has pursued increasingly unconventional tactics — including, in some cases, working with groups it had once deemed terrorist.

This marks a potentially game-changing shift in US policy, and a major shift in the ongoing US-led “war on terror,” which in Syria has led to allegations that the US government is working on “backdoor” intelligence provided by Hayat Tahrir ash-Sham (HTS) to carry out drone strikes against its major competitor in the region, Hurras ad-Din (HaD).

On March 10th, 2020, US Central Command head General Frank McKenzie admitted that in their fight against ISKP, the United States had provided “very limited support” to the Taliban units fighting ISKP in Nangarhar province. Recent reporting from the Washington Post indicates the US has coordinated with Taliban forces on the ground to provide “limited support” in the form of drone strikes against ISKP forces on key fronts, although the Taliban, despite acknowledging the occurrence of the strikes, continue to deny any coordination with the US military.

Continued attacks by ISKP in the face of concerted military operations indicate ISKP can still strike in high security zones within the capital city, seemingly at will. The group has also proven willing and capable of exploiting sectarian divisions, and has increasingly sought to exploit Afghanistan’s already fragile and divided central government.

A Tale of Two Losers

On March 9th, 2020, after two election postponements, years-long allegations of widespread fraud, and a long recount process, Ashraf Ghani and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah held dueling inauguration ceremonies to declare themselves rightful president.

During Ashraf Ghani’s acceptance speech, ISKP launched a series of rockets, which could be heard on live TV, towards the inauguration site — causing crowds to jump from their seats and scramble away in fear.

Although the US and the wider international community backed Ashraf Ghani in the 2019 Afghan presidential election, allegations of fraud and electoral irregularities have marred Ghani since he first secured power in 2014. While Ghani was projected to secure an easy victory in 2019, allegations of electoral impropriety forced a recount, and gave Dr. Abdullah sufficient time to build a parallel government which carried the popular support of Afghanistan’s sidelined ex-mujahideen commanders, drawn together despite decades of conflict and infighting. Dr. Abdullah secured the favor of General Abdul Rashid Dostum, Atta Mohammed Noor, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, some of Afghanistan’s most notorious and brutal warlords, whose militias spent years wreaking havoc in the country.

Rather than presenting the Afghan people a direct choice in the matter, the brutalized and exhausted population were for the second election cycle in a row given the option of either Ghani or Abdullah. Their choice, clearly indicated by a historically low voter turnout, was neither.

An agreement between Ghani and Abdullah was finally signed on May 17th, with the end result after months of infighting and threats to fracture the country being a simple game of musical chairs, with the major players in Afghanistan’s central government simply swapping seats with one another.

A Fractured Country

While relations between Afghan Muslims and Sikhs/Hindus were largely cordial prior to the onset of widespread conflict in Afghanistan, beginning with the Communist, Soviet-backed “Sawr revolution” military coup some 40 years ago, Afghan Sikhs and Hindus often had to fight against the perception among some of their countrymen that their natural homeland was India, rather than Afghanistan.

Some Sikhs and Hindus provided support to mujahideen forces during the Afghan war, but the end of Soviet occupation in 1989 brought further destruction to Afghanistan’s religious minority groups. This perception sharpened during the 90s as the country fell further into instability and civil war, causing reverberations throughout the country which have been felt by many groups, including Afghanistan’s minority Sikh and Hindu populations. Some Sikh Gurdwaras faced relentless attack as Northern Alliance forces occupied the religious structures to fight off Dostum’s militias in the early 1990s, and documentary footage from the early 2010s shows extensive and yet-unrepaired damage to the same structures.

Although Taliban rule during the 1990s and early 2000s brought relative stability and security, discrimination towards religious minority groups continued, and freedom became increasingly lacking. After decades of various occupations, civil wars, and brutal conflicts, the Afghan Sikh and Hindu population has dwindled from an estimated peak of several hundred thousand members before 1992 to just 696 people in 2019, according to one community count. As troubles for Afghan Sikhs and Hindus continue, we can expect much of the remaining population to leave the country in the coming years.

ISKP, too, have applied overwhelming pressure to Afghanistan’s religious minority populations, targeting Sikh Gurdwaras and religious processions with increased fervor in recent months. But the sad reality is that regardless of whether ISKP is eliminated or not, Afghanistan’s ethnic and religious minorities, women, and youth still face overwhelming repression and violence — onset in large part by the same figures who terrorized them for the past four decades remaining in power against the popular will of Afghanistan’s citizenry.

It will be up to Afghanistan’s next generation to root out the sectarianism plaguing their country. In the absence of any cohesive anti-sectarian front, the first hurdle for Afghan youth will be to break (at least in part) with centuries of tradition by centering a pluralistic alternative to ethnorivalry. Until then, ISKP and other parties will continue to sow chaos amid Afghanistan’s increasingly fragile political economy.