Over the past few month, ISIS has renewed its efforts to expand its influence in Afghanistan. While ISIS cells are active in most of the country, ISIS’ main stronghold is the province Nangarhar.
ISIS in Afghanistan has received additional manpower for its expansion from Syria and Iraq where the terrorist group’s self-proclaimed Caliphate was recently defeat. So, many ISIS field commanders and fighters fled the country and joined the Afghan branch of the terrorist group.
Another factor contributing to growth of the ISIS influence is a poor humanitarian, economic and social sitaution in the country. According to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the Afghan government controls only about 56-57% of the country. About 29% of the country is contested between the government, the Taliban and ISIS. The rest of the country is mostly controlled by the Taliban.
A major part of the population dislikes intensely the ISIS ideology. However, one of the problems of the Taliban is that the movement has not been able to improve the live conditions of the young population in the areas it controls. ISIS exploits this displeasure to recruit new members in the government-held, contested and even Taliban-held areas.
The Taliban is actively opposing the ISIS expansion. For example, on August 1, the Taliban carried out a large scale operation against ISIS in the northern province of Jawzjan defeating the terrorist group there. According to the Taliban news agency Voice of Jihad 153 ISIS members were killed and over 100 others were injured in the Taliban operation. 134 terrorists were captured by the Afghan movement. A day later, the provincial authorities linked to the Kabul government said that 250 ISIS members had surrendered to the government. These terrorists fled the Taliban operation.
At the same time, the Taliban has increased its attacks against the US-backed Kabul government aiming to strengthen its influence across the country and to gain additional support among the local population, which is in opposition to the US-led bloc and its “allies” in Kabul.
ISIS already made an attempt to entrench in Afghanistan in 2015. Then, ISIS was exploiting its victories in Syria and Iraq to set up additional branches around the world. In 2018, the ISIS expansion in Afghainstan is based on the recent setbacks in the Middle East. However, this does not make the terrorist group less dangerous.
The complicated security situation concerns all the players involved in the conflict. The administration of US President Donald Trump significantly increased the number of troops deployed in Afghanistan: from 8,500 in early 2017 to 14,000 in earliy 2018. The US military has also expanded its advice and training efforts to strengthen forces of the US-backed Kabul government.
According to media leaks, Washington has also been seeking a way to negotiate with the Taliban in order to find some peaceful solution between Kabul and and the Taliban. Such a step may allow the US to reduce its military involvement into the conflict and to declare a “victory” in it – something President Trump has repeatedly promised to his supporters. However, this situation remains ulikely.
The US-backed forces are crumbling in Afghainstan and even additional deployments of the US troops have not helped to stop the Taliban’s move to the power yet. In this situation the role of China and Russia, which may play a role of neutral mediators in the conflict, are further growing. Their increased involvement means the decrease of the US influence in the region – this is an unfavorable scenario for Washington. Currently, the problem is the Trump administration has little options to turn the tide of the conflict for own favour.