After losing territory and power in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) is outsourcing its deadly attacks on the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan to local splinter groups, including the Pakistani Taliban, because it lacks manpower.
Claiming responsibility for a string of high-profile attacks in the country in recent months, particularly in Kabul, ISIS is vying with the more established Taliban and Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) for dominance in Afghanistan.
However, a recent U.N. report has said that while the leaders of the groups remain in open competition for the hearts and minds of Afghanistan’s Islamists, ISIS tends to enlist “partners of convenience” and “outsources” attacks to other local splinter groups, including the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, an umbrella group for branches of the Pakistani Taliban.
The need to reach out to these groups stems from the militants’ lack of presence on the ground. ISIS’s core leadership continues to send funds to Afghanistan despite its depleted resources in its heartlands in Iraq and Syria, but the U.N. report says ISIS in Afghanistan would simply cease to exist without this support.
The militant group has instructed its affiliate in Afghanistan to push toward the north of the country, but despite its recruitment efforts over the past three years, the militants have not yet established a viable fighting force there.
At the end of July, ISIS claimed responsibility for an attack on the Iraq Embassy in the Afghan capital of Kabul that began with a suicide bomber blowing himself up at the main gate, which allowed gunmen to enter the building and battle security forces.
ISIS has carried out attacks in the Afghan capital, targeting members of the mainly Shiite Hazara community. The violence has fueled concerns about a possible spillover into Afghanistan of sectarian violence of the kind seen in Syria and Iraq, Reuters reports.
The alliances between different groups remain in flux. At the beginning of this month, Afghan officials said Afghan Taliban fighters, separate from the Pakistani Taliban and usually opposed to ISIS, joined forces with Sher Mohammed Ghazanfar, a commander who has pledged allegiance to the militant group, and massacred dozens of civilians in a village.
AQIS and the Taliban are far stronger in terms of internal funding sources and recruits. The two groups are increasingly working alongside each other, causing havoc for the U.S-backed coalition that is trying to diminish them.
The U.N. estimates there may be as many as 7,000 AQIS and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. As the Taliban continues to wield substantial influence over AQIS, many Al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area have been integrated into the Taliban, increasing its military capability.
Also in July, 35 people were killed in a Taliban attack on government workers in Kabul, underlining Afghanistan’s precarious security situation as the United States considers an overhaul of its policy in the region.
White House concerns about the levels of troops in Afghanistan have reportedly led the Trump administration to the point where it is considering withdrawing U.S. troops from the beleaguered country altogether, against recommendations from the Pentagon.
Without a clear strategy set out by defense officials, a schism has opened in the administration over U.S. involvement in the country. At the end of April, the U.S. military said it would deploy 1,500 soldiers to Afghanistan in response to ISIS and Taliban attacks. However, without broad agreement, it looks unlikely that the U.S. will send out forces this summer.