The attack in Kabul that killed at least 30 people this week, claimed by the Islamic State militants, was different in strategy from the group’s past assaults.
Those, like the one on a Shi’ite Hazara minority group protest in Kabul last year, had been simpler. Large public gatherings are easy targets for a suicide bomber.
An attack on a military hospital in a city like Kabul, where security is so tight one cannot get into a shopping mall without going through metal detectors, requires complex reconnaissance and pre-planning. It pointed to the group’s ability to carry out a sophisticated, intelligence-driven operation, according to Barnett Rubin, associate director of the Center on International Cooperation.
“[T]hey were able to reconnoiter the hospital very well to figure out how to get into it, to smuggle all of the explosive material into Kabul, to have a safe house where they could set up everything, they obtained the proper clothing in order to disguise themselves as doctors and so on,” Rubin said.
NATO and the Afghan government like to point out that their security operations have reduced IS’s numbers in Afghanistan from several thousand to now under a thousand, and their territorial control from more than 10 districts to fewer than five.
However, some analysts think this may not be the right approach to gauging the strength of a militant group like IS, which seems to have adapted and adjusted its strategy.
“I don’t think we know that their numbers have diminished,” according to Rubin. “We know that maybe the numbers of them fighting in a military way have diminished but they have changed tactics. They have gone underground. We don’t know what their numbers are,” he said.
Kabul-based political analyst Intizar Khadim expressed similar thoughts.
“I’m not talking about the number of IS increasing,” he said. “I’m talking about the resources that is enabling Daesh (IS) to have increased.”
General Nicholson, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, acknowledged in a briefing to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee that IS Khorasan Province, as IS calls its local chapter, had “shown an ability to conduct attacks in Kabul and elsewhere in the country” despite its battlefield losses.
The Kabul attack involved five suicide bombers. But for those five to operate, they probably required many more as support staff. That indicated that ISKP had managed to set up support networks inside Kabul.
The Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network, in a dispatch published on its website last year, claimed to have some evidence of at least three ISKP cells operating in Kabul.
“Over the past eighteen months, AAN has been consistently hearing stories of young men from Kabul having adopted the IS ideology and joining its ‘battlefields’ in Nangarhar, Afghanistan, as well as in Iraq and Syria,” the dispatch published in October of last year claimed.
While most Afghans reject IS ideology as too cruel and alien to their culture, high unemployment and lucrative salary offers are a significant draw for former fighters without jobs, according to Khadim.
“In Middle East you see Daesh [IS] is giving food for war. In Afghanistan they are paying high prices for any warrior that is joining this group. They are paying high wages for their fighters for grabbing guns and fighting for them,” Khadim said.
The withdrawal of most of the international security forces from Afghanistan led to a significant decline in economic activity in the country. The growth rate plummeted to 1.3 percent in 2014 while the rate of poverty climbed to 39.1 percent in 2013-14, according to the World Bank.
The resultant high unemployment gave a boost to the recruitment efforts of groups like the Afghan Taliban and the IS that had the ability to pay lucrative salaries compared to the local market place.
However, money was not the only factor driving young men to the IS.
ISKP operates a deft propaganda machine including social media, videos and literature, as well as an FM radio channel that keeps popping back up every time it is knocked down by NATO or Afghan forces. The FM can be heard in parts of the eastern provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar.
“ISKP’s romanticization of living as one of its fighters is unparalleled in the jihadist media in Afghanistan,” according to another dispatch published on AAN’s website.
Anecdotal evidence from various parts of Afghanistan suggests a slow but steady stream of new IS recruits.
Local journalists in Nangarhar told VOA that the voice of one IS radio broadcaster sounded too much like a local journalist they knew who had disappeared from the scene.
Khadim also pointed to the Afghan government’s failure in providing good governance in many parts of the country as a reason for people to turn to militant outfits.
On the other hand, the threat of IS was leading regional players like Russia and Iran to increase their efforts to get the Taliban onboard for a political settlement.
Iran, a mainly Shi’ite country, was afraid of anti-Shi’ite IS getting too close to its borders and Russia wanted to keep IS influence away from the Muslim population in its backyard.
Another silver lining on the horizon was the increased economic activity in the region. China wanted to expand its Belts and Roads initiative, including a portion in Pakistan involving investments of more than $40 billion. India and Japan were collaborating on a seaport in Iran at Chabahar.
All of this means that the cost of instability in Afghanistan has gone up and regional players have a greater incentive to help find solutions to the country’s security problems.