Why ISIS is Failing to Build a Caliphate in Afghanistan

Afghan police
Afghan policemen arrive at the site of a blast and gunfire at a military hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan March 8, 2017. ISIS have claimed responsibility for the attack, which some believe the Taliban carried out. Omar Sobhani/Reuters

Of all the countries the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) has tried to conquer, Afghanistan has proved the toughest. The country's resilience is particularly impressive given ISIS' continued terrorist attacks, designed to instill fear across its provinces.

On March 5, the group released an execution video from its stronghold in Achin, a district of Nangarhar province on the border with Pakistan. In the film, two men kneel before the militants, who accuse them of working as government spies. One is shot in the head, the other is decapitated. Three days after the video came out, a bomb went off at the rear of a military hospital in the Afghan capital of Kabul. Gunmen dressed as medics then entered the building and opened fire, leading to an hours-long battle with security forces. The final death toll was 38 people, with dozens more injured. ISIS' Amaq news agency wasted no time in taking credit.

Taken together and in isolation, these two events seem to suggest that ISIS is thriving in Afghanistan, just as it once did in Libya, Iraq and Syria. One could make the assumption that in Afghanistan, the group is maintaining its perverse version of law and order throughout its territory, while still having the organization and resources to strike the capital. It's what ISIS would like you to think—but it may not be true.

ISIS' position in Afghanistan is getting weaker by the day. U.S. forces have promised to defeat the group by the end of the year, while NATO and Afghan troops have already cut the number of districts the group holds from more than 10 to between three and five.

It is a humiliating loss for ISIS, which has failed to make any significant headway in Afghanistan, a country that the Afghanistan Analysts' Network describes as having "historical cache as the home of the first successful jihad of modern times." Split into 398 districts, only a tiny part of Afghanistan ever belonged to ISIS. Now, less than two and a half years after the group's commanders (a bunch of former Pakistan Taliban members) pledged allegiance to ISIS, the group looks to be in the sunset of a fairly dismal attempt to raise its black flag over Afghanistan.

Back in October 2014, when the group's leaders made their oath, they might have thought that they could replicate ISIS' successes elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa. But, Afghanistan already had a dominant terrorist group—and it certainly wasn't going to move over for some jumped-up jihadists.

The Taliban currently controls more territory in Afghanistan than at any time since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. Last month, the Long War Journal estimated the group held 43 of the country's districts and was influencing or contesting 56 more. Several of the experts Newsweek spoke to said they believe rogue elements of the Taliban were behind the Kabul hospital attack but ISIS, greedy for publicity, was permitted to take credit.

Usually, the Taliban is not so lenient. "The Taliban sees ISIS as a competitor on the battlefield," says the Afghanistan Analysts' Network, whose members asked to be quoted only with the organization's name. "When ISIS began appearing in Afghanistan and tried to get a foothold, the Taliban cracked down on them."

When ISIS tried to gain traction in the west of the country, adds Ronald Neumann, the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and now president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, the Taliban "sent in reinforcements and badly damaged ISIS there."

Part of the Taliban's dislike of ISIS in Afghanistan is that the group is made up of former Taliban members, some of whom the Taliban expelled for being too brutal. (Members of other central and south Asian militant groups make up the rest of ISIS).

Smoke rises from the site of a blast and gunfire between Taliban and Afghan forces in Kabul, Afghanistan March 1. Reuters

That the group contains these extremists also explains its failure to gain a foothold in Afghanistan. It's very hard to win hearts and minds, when, as ISIS did in August 2015, you force a group of 10 Afghans to kneel on explosives and blow them up. "The Taliban is brutal but it usually does not overreach altogether in its brutality," says Vanda Felbab-Brown, senior fellow at the U.S. think-tank, the Brookings Institution. "ISIS in Afghanistan has applied the opposite tactics. It revels in brutality, brutality that is extreme even by Afghan standards."

Unlike the Taliban, says Hameed Hakimi, a research associate at the U.K. think-tank, Chatham House, ISIS does not make any concessions to local people. "The group is completely anti local culture," Hakimi says. "It ignores issues of honor, belief in clans and ruler networks, hierarchies of society. For ISIS, framing a caliphate goes against all of this. It see itself as a purification."

Large swathes of the Afghan population might loathe the Taliban, but it has still managed to maintain considerable local support, particularly in rural areas. Felbab-Brown points to the militants allowing the opium trade to continue versus ISIS prohibiting it. ISIS is not just killing Afghans, it's costing them jobs, she says. It's hardly surprising some see the Taliban as the lesser of two evils.

The hostility ISIS faces internally, from Afghans and the Taliban, has kept it small, and made it easier for government forces and international allies to target it. "Afghan national forces, the U.S., NATO and the Taliban are pounding away at ISIS," says Felbab-Brown, who also references NATO's belief that Russia is assisting the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Largely friendless in the country, ISIS seems unlikely to stage a resurgence. Geographically distant from central command in Iraq and Syria, it can count on little support, particularly in terms of manpower, from the parent organization. Besieged on all sides, the U.S.' promise to defeat the group could still come true.