The rise of Daesh has further complicated the Afghan situation

Zahid Hussain

It was one of the most deadly terrorist attacks targeting US troops in Afghanistan, with scores of people dead and wounded. Daesh-Khorasan struck with an aim to deal maximum damage and the gruesome carnage in Kabul this week has further complicated the Afghan situation with just days to go for the completion of withdrawal of American forces.

With this attack, the group has shown that it continues to have the capacity to launch high profile terrorist actions. The group that originated in the Middle East presents a serious challenge to the Taliban trying to consolidate their hold over the country. More serious is the persisting terror threat emanating from Afghanistan impacting the region and beyond.

The killing of more than a dozen American soldiers has shaken the Biden administration, which has come under increasing criticism for the chaotic exit from Afghanistan. The US president has vowed to hunt down those involved in the Kabul attack and punish them. Yet it is not clear how the US will act against Daesh after the withdrawal of its forces.

There is certainly some convergence of interests between the US and the Taliban to counter the threat of Daesh, but there is no indication yet that the two sides could work together fighting the terror group once the American forces have left Afghanistan. Any US counter terrorism action from outside bases is likely to have its own complications.

Over the last several years, Daesh Khorasan has stepped up its terrorist actions particularly targeting civilian populations and religious minorities. Earlier this year, it targeted a school in Kabul that killed scores of girls. It was the most heinous militant attack in Afghanistan in recent years. But this week’s attack was the first targeting American soldiers. It happened after hundreds of Daesh activists were reportedly freed by Taliban fighters.

The first sign of Daesh getting organized in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region emerged as early as 2014. The group’s early recruits came from the ranks of splinter factions of the Pakistani Taliban who had been driven into Afghanistan after large scale operations in the tribal region by the Pakistan army.

In September 2014, the group named Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost – a former Afghan Taliban commander from Kunar province – as an organizer for the group’s Khorasan chapter. Prominent scholar Muslim Dost enjoyed a significant following in eastern Afghan provinces. Some high profile defections of Afghan Taliban commanders helped the group create a formal organizational structure.

In January 2015, it named former TTP commander of Orakzai Agency in Pakistan, Hafiz Saeed Khan, as the emir for Daesh’s South Asia chapter, and Mullah Abdul Rauf, a former Afghan Taliban commander who had spent many years in Guantanamo as his deputy. Initially the group focused on Afghanistan’s eastern provinces of Kunar and Nangarhar, where many Pakistani Taliban commanders, fleeing the military operation in the tribal areas, had settled. The group spread its tentacles in eleven provinces of Afghanistan.

There was a tangible escalation in the group’s actions after the Taliban signed a peace deal with the United States in Doha in February 2020.  It launched several spectacular attacks in Kabul in an effort to disrupt the peace process. In the first week of May 2020, Daesh assaulted a maternity home in Kabul, killing mothers and babies.

This was not the first time these terrorists had targeted a hospital in Afghanistan, but the sheer brutality of the killing shook and outraged people. The attacks were reportedly masterminded by Shahab al-Muhajir, the new ambitious leader of the militant group.

The rise of Daesh in Afghanistan has also been a serious national security concern for regional countries like Iran, Russia, and China. The increasing activities of the militant group in northern Afghanistan, close to the borders of the Central Asian countries, have particularly been alarming for Russia. That explains Moscow’s growing contacts with the Taliban.

There are some serious concerns that more radical elements of the Taliban could split and join Daesh with the continuing instability in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of foreign forces. The war has allowed the transnational militant group to operate in parts of the country. There are some reports that they could form a coalition with global militant groups.

That will present the most serious challenge for the new Taliban-led dispensation in Afghanistan. The Kabul attack demonstrates the destructive capacity of the group. The Taliban leadership has committed that it will not allow any transnational group to operate in Afghanistan. But it remains to be seen whether the Taliban have the capacity to fulfil its pledge.