A suicide attack by Daesh or Islamic State (IS) on a wedding party in Afghanistan’s capital Kabul poses a serious threat to peace efforts in the war-torn country. It also sounds a serious warning to local power stakeholders, regional countries and the whole world.
The attack took place days after a US-based think tank, the Institute for the Study of War, had published a report suggesting the caliphate is alive and well and is set to re-emerge imminently with deadly consequences. According to the report, IS still maintains several sleeper cells and has accrued billions of pounds worth of funding which has allowed it to remain a threat. The slow-motion reduction of IS territory and strength initiated by President Obama and continued by President Trump gave the group plenty of time to plan and prepare for the next phase of the war, the report states. Its successful reconstitution of a physical caliphate in Iraq and Syria would produce new waves of attacks in Europe and dangerously legitimise its narrative of inevitable long-term victory. The jihadi group was officially wiped out in Syria earlier this year, but its leaders and soldiers are now spread across the Middle East. According to the report, IS has a global finance network that funded its transition back to an insurgency and it still retains potent weapons.
The horrific attack came at a time when negotiations between the United States and the Taliban over when to withdraw US troops from the country are in the final stage. US analysts fear the attack by the Islamic State’s affiliate in Afghanistan, known as IS-K, has only empowered the potential deal’s critics—mostly hawkish Republicans and retired military leaders—who believe the terrorist organisation will flourish without an American presence in the region. It has also left the Taliban’s willingness to maintain a ceasefire in serious doubt.
Soon after the attack, IS-K became the subject of several news stories in the American press that warned of the group’s resurgence, including a Washington Post article that called it a “major threat.” Experts are far from unanimous on this point and intelligence officials told the New York Times that they only see IS-K as “a regional problem” and “more of a threat to the Taliban than to the West.” Both IS-K and the Taliban recruit radical Sunni fighters and oppose the Afghan government, but they consider each other rivals and have fought repeatedly.
For the US, the problem of how to characterize IS-K is not a new one. After forming in eastern Afghanistan in 2015, it has grown substantially—from roughly 700 fighters as of October 2018 to more than 2,500 as of last month—but is still only a fraction of the Taliban’s size. Experts believe IS is a third tier threat within Afghanistan. The Taliban, al-Qaeda, and their allied groups still dominate the landscape of extremist groups in Afghanistan, but IS-K has endured as a perennial distraction for the US military, which has been unable to successfully eradicate it despite several targeted missions. When the Pentagon dropped the so-called “Mother of All Bombs” three months into Trump’s term, it was with the intention of destroying a tunnel network IS-K fighters had used for transportation in their ongoing clash with Afghan security forces. That bomb evidently failed to live up to its name.
The deadly attack is being seen in the country as an effort by IS to lay claim to power. But it is not a party to the planned peace agreement. The deal includes a commitment from the Taliban to begin negotiating directly with Afghan leaders. With that possible, if still unlikely, deal on the horizon, IS-K has shifted into focus as a core concern for the Afghan military and its American advisers. “The IS-K poses a serious threat to Afghanistan and the world, and it needs an international consensus,” a spokesperson for the Afghan National Security Council said. A Pentagon report submitted to Congress the same day reached a similar conclusion, finding that IS-K “will remain an enduring threat in Afghanistan, even if the Afghan government and the Taliban reach a political settlement.”
The attack on a wedding party shows the group does not aim to win ordinary people’s loyalty but to rule through fear and a few select powerbrokers. Its explicit savagery is not a byproduct of broader strategy. It is the strategy, noted a report in the Guardian. IS strategic thinking has been heavily influenced by the advice of key jihadi thinkers who argued a decade or more ago that extremists needed to foment civil war, discord and chaos. The resultant bloody anarchy would allow them to gain support and eventual power. This was one reason it made savage assaults on Shia Muslims central to its worldview and strategy, aiming to prompt civil war in Iraq. The victims of its latest attack were from Afghanistan’s marginalised Hazara minority and Shia. The aim was slightly different though. A civil war is already under way, and there is no need to provoke a fresh one. Instead, the attack on the wedding underlined the inability of the Afghan government to protect its own citizens, prompting fear and anger and helping to ensure that any efforts to stabilise the country come to nothing.
Experts see the attack a tragic reminder of the threat posed by IS in Afghanistan and the broader region. For them, what is particularly concerning about it is its resilience. Despite many constraints — including an unfriendly militant environment dominated by groups aligned with its Al-Qaeda rival; an inability to seize large amounts of territory; and a relentless campaign of US-Afghan airstrikes that target it practically every day — the group has retained the ability to strike in spectacular fashion.
It is feared IS would keep on terrorizing Afghanistan if the Taliban agreed to a troop withdrawal deal with Washington, and even if they agreed to a comprehensive peace settlement with Kabul. A Taliban peace accord would strengthen it. Many hard-line Taliban members, unhappy about a peace deal that they oppose, would throw their allegiances to it. It has already attracted several splinter factions of other terrorist organizations — from the Pakistani Taliban to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan — to its cause.
Analysts say the latest attack is also a reminder of the dangers that IS poses to broader South Asia. A few months ago, the group had claimed a series of attacks on churches in Sri Lanka. A few years earlier, it was involved in a deadly assault on a popular bakery in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Its expanding outreach demands the world must start a fresh war against it after declaring its demise too early.