ISIL in Afghanistan: how big a threat is it?

The extremists are now cornered by the Afghan Taliban and Afghan troops backed by American special forces and have been driven into a handful of remote mountain areas.

A member of the Afghan security force takes position during an operation against ISIL in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, on April 11, 2017. Lack of progress in operations against ISIL prompted the  US forces assisting the Afghans to drop the largest non-nuclear bomb ever used in combat in Achin district, Nangarhar, on April 13, 2017. Ghulamullah Habibi / EPA
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ISIL’s franchise in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Islamic State-Khorasan (ISK), announced its formation in rural eastern Afghanistan at the beginning of 2015 and reached its peak a year ago as a force of about 3,000 militants, controlling nearly a dozen districts.

But since then the Salafi extremists have been cornered by their rival insurgents, the Afghan Taliban — who ISK declared to be non-Muslim — as well as Afghan troops backed by US special forces and air strikes, and driven into a handful of remote mountainous areas such as Achin, where the US dropped the largest conventional bomb ever on a cave and tunnel complex on Thursday.

Russia and Iran — both former enemies of the Taliban — are thought to have begun helping the Taliban fight the ISIL affiliate. With so many foes arrayed against ISK, Afghan officials say now only between 600 and 800 of its fighters remain in the country.

The group’s attempts to expand beyond Nangarhar have failed. However, despite its dwindling numbers and the tiny scrap of territory it controls, the group still poses a significant threat to Kabul, Islamabad and the Afghan Taliban.

Over the past year, the ISIL-affiliate has proven itself year to be capable of carrying out assassinations and bloody terrorist attacks against Shiite and Sufi sites in the hearts of both Afghanistan and Pakistan. More than 30 people were killed in an ISK suicide bombing at a Shia mosque in Kabul last November, and in February nearly 100 people were killed in a bombing by the group at a Sufi shrine in southern Pakistan.

Its emergence as an even more extreme insurgent group under the ISIL brand could also make it an attractive potential home for disgruntled Taliban factions within the larger insurgency, which has splintered to a degree after the announcement of the death of its founder, Mullah Omar.

The group calling itself ISK was formed by the remnants of the Pakistani Taliban factions that fled Pakistan army operations in the tribal areas just across the border, beginning in 2010, and others from the Central Asian republics.

In Nangarhar, the vanguard of the movement was a group of Pakistani militants who had lived there for years as “guests” of the Afghan government and local people.

For years the Pakistani fighters were sheltered and supported by the Afghan government and its intelligence service, the National Directorate for Intelligence, as a proxy force to use against the Pakistani state as well as the Afghan Taliban, which itself has received support from Pakistan’s spy agency.

According to Borhan Osman, a researcher with the Afghan Analysts Network, who has written extensively on the group, residents of the Momand valley, where many of the Pakistani fighters settled, believed the ISK was a pro-government force that attacked the Taliban and even publicly praised Afghan security forces. The group also opened madrasas and schools for children, which became indoctrination and military training camps.

But by the summer of 2015, the Afghan security forces had turned against the group. However their operations against them have made uneven progress until more recently when the US stepped up assistance.