TSG IntelBrief: The Unique Threat of the Islamic State in Afghanistan
March 9, 2017

The Unique Threat of the Islamic State in Afghanistan


Bottom Line Up Front:

• On March 8, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for an attack on a Kabul hospital that killed at least 30 people.

• Despite more than 15 years of a combat presence and billions spent on creating a central government, the spread of the Islamic State to Afghanistan shows how fragile the country remains.

• Neither the U.S. counter-insurgency strategy against the Taliban nor the U.S. counterterrorism strategy to battle al-Qaeda is suited for the fight against the Islamic State in Afghanistan.

• The proliferation of the Islamic State in Afghanistan represents a very different challenge that will require an entirely different approach to combat.


The goal of establishing an effective central government capable of providing security for the entire country has continued to prove highly elusive for Afghanistan, even after more than 15 years of a U.S. presence in the country. Afghanistan in 2016 is demonstrably more dangerous than it was in 2001—and even 1979—in terms of the levels of insurgent and terrorist violence. The government in Kabul, backed by a NATO coalition, has battled a persistent and strengthening Taliban insurgency, while also dealing with the continued presence of al-Qaeda in certain areas of the country. Indeed, it was the very presence of al-Qaeda and the threat the group posed to the U.S. and the West that has driven the past 15 years of foreign intervention in Afghanistan. 

Though al-Qaeda has suffered massive losses in Afghanistan, the U.S. intervention has been unsuccessful in completely denying al-Qaeda a safe haven in the country. It has also failed to generate a stable central government capable of maintaining rule of law throughout the country. Despite various metrics that have been used as evidence of isolated successes—such as the number of roads paved and increased cell phone coverage—the ongoing Western intervention in Afghanistan continues to be an enormously expensive endeavor with insufficient returns on the investment.

The persistent insecurity throughout Afghanistan—even in locations deemed most secure—was highlighted yet again by a March 8 attack at the Sardar Daud Khan medical complex in Kabul. The attack, which was carried out by the increasingly deadly Islamic State affiliate in the country, killed at least 30 patients and medical staff in what is the premier military hospital in the Afghan capital. There is no denying both the immense human toll of such an attack as well as the larger systemic failure of the Afghan government to protect even its most important and obvious targets. Despite massive efforts to fortify Kabul in a ‘ring of steel,’ the Afghan capital remains extremely vulnerable. 

The spread of the Islamic State in Afghanistan is not simply a natural consequence of the Taliban insurgency; it represents a new and distinct form of parasite that feeds off of the weaknesses wrought by strife and poor governance. The U.S.-led effort is designed to help Kabul fight an insurgency while combating pockets of terrorism in the form of al-Qaeda. The Islamic State represents a third threat that is not accounted for in the plans; the group is not interested in tapping into local tribal ties for the long-term fight, but rather is intent on killing its way to prominence in a muddled battlefield. The Islamic State is very unlike the Taliban, which is an insurgency, as well as al-Qaeda, which sees long-term association as its key to success. The Islamic State in Afghanistan, as elsewhere, wants to bypass local ties and traditions and kill its way to influence and control. Murdering people in a hospital, something even the Taliban publicly rejects, is a sign of the terror group seeking to coopt an insurgency on its way to a proclaimed caliphate. Though the Islamic State is not nearly as powerful in Afghanistan as it was at its peak in Syria and Iraq, its ambitions and methods are unlikely to be tempered.


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