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Why ISIS appears to be deadlier than the Taliban in Afghanistan

By Manoj Mishra - posted Thursday, 4 October 2018

ISIS's affiliate in Afghanistan, also known as ISIS-Khorasan or Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), poses a serious security threat to Afghan civilians - primarily minority communities and foreign nationals.

This is evident from the recent high-profile terror attacks conducted by the group as well as other attacks in recent months that were given less global media coverage. The US strikes that have killed ISIS leaders, such as the August 2018 strike that killed Abu Sayeed Orakzai, are likely to have only a temporary impact on the group. The killings of then-leaders Abu Sayed in 2017, Abdul Hasib and Hafiz Sayed Khan in 2016 failed to make any significant impact on ISKP's vitality. ISIS has shown a tremendous ability to bounce back in Iraq and Syria by taking advantage of simmering disaffection, anger and frustration among rebel groups.

A UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) report released on July 15, 2018 indicated that even while the Taliban was responsible for more civilian casualties in the first half of 2018, according to the Taliban's own claims it was responsible for fewer civilian casualties across more attacks compared to ISIS, which perpetrates more civilian casualties across fewer attacks.


For instance, the report attributed 42 per cent of civilian casualties to the Afghan Taliban and 18 per cent to ISIS. The Taliban, however, claimed responsibility for 26 attacks resulting in 453 civilian casualties, while ISIS claimed responsibility for 15 attacks with 595 civilian casualties. Two points are revealing here. First, ISIS, though a new actor in the Afghan landscape, claimed responsibility for more casualties. It is possible that the Taliban, claiming as it does to be a legitimate actor, might have deliberately kept its reported number of civilian casualties low. Second, during the second half of 2018, which falls outside the purview of the report, ISIS perpetrated a number of dreadful attacks while the Taliban was at this time engaged in the peace process. The report stated that the number of civilians killed during the first six months of 2018 was the highest of the past decade. The appalling terror strikes perpetrated predominantly by ISIS in the second half of the year will see 2018 shaping up as one of the most violent years in Afghanistan on record.

Noticeably, the primary targets for the Taliban are Afghan government institutions and officials. This targeting tactic aims to pressure the US and Afghan governments so that they agree to its terms. ISIS not only targeted Afghan government officials and the foreign diplomatic presence it considers to be 'apostates', it also indiscriminately targeted those civilians ISIS believes to be 'heretics', primarily members of Afghanistan's religious minority communities. In May 2018, ISIS launched attacks on the Afghan Interior Ministry as well as the Finance Department, while the Education Department was attacked twice in July, 2018. The group targeted most of its offensives towards civilians in the Shiite sect and the Hazara ethnic community, considering these minority groups to be heretics. Religious minorities such as Hindu and Sikh are also not immune from ISIS terror strikes, as indicated by the offensives in the Afghan city of Jalalabad on July 1, 2018, which killed 19 people, including 17 members of the Sikh and Hindu communities there.

The Taliban has staked a claim to be a legal and political actor in Afghanistan and therefore is not likely to claim responsibility for attacks that result in large-scale killings of Afghan civilians. ISIS, on the other hand, has pan-Islamic objectives and openly claims its responsibility for attacks that take huge toll on those civilians who do not conform to their religious beliefs. Civilian casualties of the Taliban were primarily collateral damage from the armed clashes between the Afghan government and the Taliban, and between the Taliban on the one hand and NATO and American forces on the other. Taliban attacks on government institutions and the diplomatic presence of foreign countries also resulted in civilian deaths.

The objectives pursued by ISIS are far more dreadful and transnational than the objectives pursued by the Taliban in Afghanistan, as are their methods of torture. ISIS uses extremely brutal methods of torture, such as beheadings and forcing the victims to sit on explosives, while recording the dreadful event in order to arouse fear among other actors within Afghanistan, including foreign nationals and civilians of religious minority communities. ISIS's terrorizing of women through rape and abduction has contributed no less to the Afghan people's fear and anguish.

ISIS has claimed responsibility for despicable and horrendous terrorist attacks as well. For instance, successive terror attacks in Kabul on April 30, 2018 reportedly took lives of more than 40 civilians, including journalists and children. These strikes followed closely on the heels of a spate of serious attacks the week before in which more than 60 civilians were killed as they lined up to register to vote for the upcoming elections.

Attacks on August 15, 2018 claimed the lives of more than 48 young people, among whom 34 were students belonging to the Shiite minority sect who were preparing for their university entrance exams. The car-bomb attack on a gathering of Taliban and Afghan forces united to celebrate Eid ceasefire between June 15 and 17 claimed at least 26 lives and left several people wounded in the eastern province of Nangarhar. This attack could have no other objective except sabotaging the peace process and creating lawlessness in Afghanistan. Lawlessness will give ISIS the ability to spread its radical ideology and to recruit emotionally-tormented people.


The Taliban aspires to be a legal and political actor with firm indigenous roots. It is amenable to peace and reconciliation efforts despite its radical ambitions. ISIS, on the other hand, neither possesses any nationalist agenda nor does it adhere to any one indigenous character. For instance,a piece in The Guardian newspaper stated that ISIS in Afghanistan (ISKP) has been strengthened by Taliban defectors, fighters from Iraq and Syria, and militants from Sudan, Chechnya, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Russian sources continue to express their concern that ISIS has an enhanced presence in Afghanistan, with around 10,000 fighters spread across eight to nine provinces. This perception of an enhanced and threatening ISIS presence is also shared by China, Pakistan and Iran. Even while the US-led forces downplay ISIS's numbers and strength, the well-documented presence of the group in the eastern provinces of Nangarhar, Kunar and Nuristan along the Pakistani border and in the northern province of Jowzjan seems to be a major concern for neighboring countries. Cases of successful terror attacks conducted by the group in the city of Kabul lays bare the grim fact that whenever ISKP has advance notice of any slight slackening of security controls, the group has the ability to spread its influence to any part of Afghanistan.

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This article was first published in Eurasia Review.

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About the Author

Dr Manoj Kumar Mishra is a Lecturer in Political Science at SVM Autonomous College, Odisha, India. He previously worked as Programme Director in the School of International Studies at Ravenshaw University, also in Odisha.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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