Following this week’s Islamic State attack on a guesthouse in Kabul, U.S. officials say the terrorist group is recruiting a multiethnic force that threatens security in neighboring countries and that the Taliban need to do more to eliminate the threat.
While the Taliban claim they have restored peace in Afghanistan, a local offshoot of IS, the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP), has carried out a string of high-profile terrorist attacks in several Afghan cities over the past year.
On Monday, IS fighters stormed a hotel in Kabul, killing several people and wounding others, including five Chinese citizens.
Previously, U.S. officials had said that most IS fighters in Afghanistan were ethnic Pashtuns from the volatile Afghanistan-Pakistan border regions and that many had links to the Taliban.
However, after the Taliban seized power last year, there were concerns that some former Afghan army and intelligence forces were joining IS ranks to defy Taliban persecution.
Some of the recent ISKP attacks in Afghanistan, including Monday’s attack and an attack in June on a Sikh temple in Kabul, appeared to involve fighters who were from neighboring Central Asian countries.
“IS in Afghanistan remains a multiethnic terrorist network and draws most of its recruits from within Afghanistan,” a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department told VOA this week.
ISKP first appeared in eastern Afghanistan in January 2015. In late 2019, the U.S. and the former Afghan government announced the terror group was nearly decimated as hundreds of its fighters were killed in joint counterterror operations.
ISKP, however, survived and even managed to kill 13 U.S. military personnel in a suicide attack at Kabul airport in August 2021 – the last U.S. casualties in Afghanistan.
Boosting border security
“So far, attacks inside Afghanistan by jihadis based in Tajikistan have been unusual,” Graeme Smith, a senior consultant with the International Crisis Group, told VOA, adding that most Central Asian nations perceive militancy emanating from Afghanistan.
Earlier this year, ISKP fighters fired several rockets at Tajikistan and Uzbekistan from Afghanistan in what appeared to be an effort by the group to instigate regional conflicts.
“It’s clear that greater regional cooperation on security issues is necessary, especially along Afghanistan’s rugged borders,” Smith said.
Among the six countries surrounding Afghanistan, Tajikistan in particular has developed unfriendly relations with the Taliban regime, primarily by hosting leaders of the anti-Taliban forces that have launched an armed insurgency in pockets of northern Afghanistan.
Tajik President Emomali Rahmon has also called for the creation of an inclusive government in Afghanistan where ethnic Tajiks are given a fair share in the Cabinet.
“Tajikistan is rightly concerned about terrorist travel and terrorist threats emanating from Afghanistan and is taking important steps to address the threat,” said the State Department spokesperson.
While calling on the Taliban to eliminate terrorist groups inside Afghanistan, the U.S. has maintained security cooperation with Central Asian nations to boost their border security.
“We have worked with our Central Asian partners, including Tajikistan, for many years to support improved border security and to build law enforcement capacity to interdict terrorist travel. This security cooperation includes training, assistance, mentorship and equipment to counter terrorist activity and curtail transnational crime,” the spokesperson said.
Declining counterterrorism cooperation with the U.S., Taliban authorities insist that their globally isolated Islamist regime is capable of eliminating ISKP independently — a mission even U.S., NATO and former Afghan forces could not complete.
U.S. intelligence officials have warned about the Islamic State’s growing capabilities in Afghanistan but have doubted the group’s ability to strike the U.S. in the near future.