Amid continued conflict across Afghanistan, ISIL’s quest to export its jihadist ideology beyond Syria and Iraq to its self-declared "Khorasan province" has led to intensified violence in recent weeks.
Militants swearing allegiance to ISIL’s self-proclaimed "caliph", Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, have carried out several destructive attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. While these operations have caused considerable alarm, other factors suggest that they are in fact more revealing of the extremist group’s failure to build a strong presence in the region.
Last week’s attack on a hospital in the city of Quetta in the Baluchistan province of Pakistan killed at least 70 people. While both ISIL and a Pakistani Taliban faction offered competing claims of responsibility, there is no doubt that the former has the resolve and capabilities to target large numbers of civilians in the region’s major cities.
This was evident in last month’s ISIL bombing of a demonstration by the Hazara minority in the Afghan capital Kabul, which also claimed scores of lives.
After the formation of ISIL-Khorasan in January 2015 confirmed the spread of affiliates of the global "caliphate" into Central and South Asia, the group gained a foothold in Afghanistan’s eastern provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar, adjoining the border with Pakistan.
The embryonic movement, consisting mainly of militants from Pakistan and Uzbekistan, also managed to entice some renegade Taliban members. ISIL-Khorasan has also sought to establish cells in northern Afghanistan to link up with militants in the Central Asian republics and the Xinjiang region of China.
Since it established itself in the country, ISIL’s threat to show "no mercy or compassion" to those who did not "repent" and join the "caliphate" has brought it into direct conflict with the Taliban. The Taliban’s quest to establish an "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" has been derided by Al Baghdadi’s followers through a propaganda campaign that paints their rivals as illegitimate stooges of Pakistan’s ISI intelligence agency.
Tensions between ISIL and the Taliban on the ground have broken into direct clashes, but also instances of local truces between the two organisations and joint efforts to support local communities.
However, there is little evidence of enthusiasm among local Nangarhar tribes to rally to the cause embodied by the "caliphate". Recent ceasefires have instead been interpreted as evidence that ISIL forces are being hard pressed by intensified Afghan government operations aided by Nato advisers.
A recent United States-Afghan campaign has inflicted significant losses on the movement. Last weekend saw confirmation that Hafiz Saeed Khan, ISIL’s leader in Khorasan and a defector from the Pakistani Taliban, had been killed in the Nangarhar province by a drone strike as part of a joint US-Afghan operation in July.
In coordination with Afghan forces, the US has deployed more troops and stepped up air strikes. New deployments reflect the commitments made by Barack Obama at Nato’s recent Warsaw summit to increase efforts to assist the Kabul government. General John Nicholson, the Commander of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan, claims to have inflicted hundreds of casualties including several senior commanders.
The result is that the remaining ISIL militants in Nangarhar have been driven farther into remote mountainous areas close to the border. After reaching peak strength of 3,000 in mid-2015, there may now be fewer than 1,000 committed fighters left in Afghanistan. This reversal of fortunes suggests that the organisation’s attempt to transcend national and local allegiances is failing. The remaining militants are being forced to make tactical alliances with local Taliban forces simply to survive.
While ISIL can still stage major attacks, the death of Hafiz Saeed Khan will probably severely affect its ability to hold territory and gain new adherents. In contrast to Al Baghdadi’s hardline puritanism and persecution of what he sees as non-believers, the Taliban’s avoidance of sectarian violence and focus on fighting what it sees as an illegitimate government means it has been able to retain its support base.
The Afghan government will hope that the recent decapitation of ISIL’s organisation in the country will disrupt the group’s recruitment, supply and finance networks to an extent that a recovery will be impossible.
With the nerve centre of the "caliphate" in the Syrian city of Raqqa under steadily increasing pressure, the remnants of ISIL-Khorasan may look in vain for help from its parent organisation. Renewed US efforts in support of Kabul suggest that before he leaves office Barack Obama is hoping to chalk up a decisive victory over a movement that has drawn opprobrium from around the world.
Ultimately, the complex patterns of tribal, provincial and national politics in Afghanistan have ensured that the global "caliphate" has gained little traction. Aside from failing to take and hold significant territory in the country, ISIL’s puritan pan-Islamism and demands for the allegiance of all Muslims have proved to be self-defeating.
Whether or not ISIL-Khorasan can sustain itself underground after its apparent military defeat will give some indication of the possible fate of the entire movement after, as now seems likely, the territory ruled by the "caliphate" in Syria and Iraq is fully liberated.