Expanding the Caliphate

ISIS' South Asia Strategy

An Afghan border policeman escorts a detained suspected Taliban fighter in Afghanistan's Paktika Province, near the border with Pakistan, November 2012. GORAN TOMASEVIC / REUTERS

For over a year, the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) has been attempting to expand into South Asia. ISIS has developed a loose organizational structure in Afghanistan and Pakistan, provided money to local groups, and adopted a confrontational approach to the Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda—all on al Qaeda’s home turf, no less. Its goal is straightforward: to co-opt disaffected local militants in an effort to build influence and power in the region.

ISIS in South Asia, which it calls the Islamic State of Khorasan, is larger than most recognize, boasting between several hundred and several thousand fighters. And its push into the subcontinent has led to numerous skirmishes with the Afghan Taliban, the largest and best-organized militant group in Afghanistan. In early June, for example, ISIS and Taliban fighters engaged in pitched battles in Shinwar, Achin, and other districts in Nangarhar province.

A policeman at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Afghanistan's Farah Province, February 2015.  OMAR SOBHANI / REUTERS
Despite these developments, some analysts have dismissed the presence of ISIS in Afghanistan and Pakistan as fictitious at worst or grossly exaggerated at best. In a May article in Al Jazeera, for example, Aimal Faizi, a journalist and former spokesperson for Hamid Karzai, argued that ISIS’ presence in Afghanistan is largely a “manufactured myth,” used by Afghan and U.S. officials for political purposes.

There may be a kernel of truth to his assertion. Some Afghan officials, for instance, have likely exaggerated the presence of ISIS in Afghanistan as a way to pressure Washington to keep U.S. forces in the country or to blame Pakistan for meddling in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. Local authorities have certainly exploited concerns about ISIS to their own advantage: Earlier this year, The New York Times reported that officials in Afghanistan’s Ghazni Province had manufactured a story about ISIS beheadings in an attempt to draw military support from Kabul in 2014.

To be sure, it will be difficult for ISIS’ South Asia branch to dominate the other extremist groups in the region. A variety of competing jihadist organizations already

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