US predicts ISIS-Khorasan resurgence if Afghan government falls

Kabul declared victory against the group in 2019 but US fears swift return

A member of the Afghan security force takes position during an operation against ISIS in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, in 2017. EPA
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The ISIS affiliate that is operating in Afghanistan and was once on a back foot after sustained US and Afghan operations could quickly resurge in the war-torn nation if the US pullout leads to a collapse of the Kabul government, a senior US official said on Thursday.

ISIS-Khorasan, or IS-K as it is better known, first emerged in Afghanistan in 2015 and overran large parts of Nangarhar and Kunar provinces near the Pakistan border, wreaking havoc on villagers' lives and conducting a string of suicide attacks.

The US military, Afghan security forces and sometimes even the Taliban have fought IS-K, and after successive campaigns the group's physical foothold in Afghanistan has dwindled. In 2017, the US military dropped the “Mother Of All Bombs” — its largest non-nuclear weapon ever deployed in combat — on the group.

In 2019, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani declared victory against IS-K, claiming his security forces had “obliterated” the group. But a string of devastating attacks against civilians shows the group was never defeated and could be gaining strength as US forces withdraw from Afghanistan before the September 11 deadline.

John Godfrey, the acting US special envoy for the global anti-ISIS coalition and the State Department's acting counter-terrorism co-ordinator, said Washington currently believes IS-K could return to its former strength within two years.

“The potential for that group to reconstitute its capabilities within two years is consistent with what we have heard from other quarters of the US government, so we would echo that [assessment],” Mr Godfrey told The National.

Mr Godfrey was referring to the State Department's assessment, shared by Pentagon leaders, that a collapse of the central government in Kabul following the US pullout would lead to the emergence of new terror threats against America from a country that once harboured Al Qaeda.

In February, the head of the US military's Central Command, Gen Frank McKenzie, said IS-K had boosted its capabilities last year.

“New leadership allowed it to stabilise and increase localised and lone-wolf attacks throughout the second half of the year,” he said.

Gen Mark Milley, the Pentagon's top officer, has warned of a “worst-case scenario” in Afghanistan after forces fully withdraw by September 11.

“You have a potential collapse of the government, a potential collapse of the military, you have civil war, you have all the humanitarian catastrophe that goes with it, and the potential for the return of Al Qaeda sometime down the road,” he said in April.

The dire assessments have not changed the Biden administration's plans to complete the withdrawal on or ahead of schedule. In a visit to Washington last week, Mr Ghani failed to convince the White House to slow the pull out.

Recent estimates by think tanks and intelligence groups have put the number of IS-K fighters between 1,000 and 3,000.

Updated: July 02, 2021, 7:11 AM