The Graveyard of Caliphates

The Failure of ISIS in Afghanistan

An Afghan policeman inspects a building used by insurgents after an operation near the Indian consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan January 5, 2016. Anil Usyan / Reuters

In January 2015, Kurdish forces drove the so-called Islamic State (also known as ISIS) out of Kobani, a city previously considered to be one of the group’s strongholds. At the time, ISIS released an audio statement to restore the morale of its beleaguered fighters. In it, spokesman Abu Muhammed al-Adnani reassured ISIS foot soldiers that the group was “becoming stronger and stronger” and “taking confident steps with no doubt or hesitation.” Adnani then dropped a bombshell: ISIS had added Wilayat Khorasan—a territory encompassing Afghanistan and Pakistan—to its growing list of international outposts.

Since the establishment of Wilayat Khorasan, Afghanistan has become central to ISIS’ campaign for global expansion. But challenges in Afghanistan have plagued the group from the very start. After more than two decades of conflict, the Taliban is deeply entrenched in Afghanistan’s militant communities. As an indigenous force, it can draw on tribal relationships and ethnic loyalties, an inherent advantage over ISIS. And although the Taliban may not be particularly savvy on social media, the group understands the needs and desires of Afghanistan’s jihadists in ways that ISIS can’t. 

ISIS understands its disadvantages, though, so to outmaneuver the Taliban, it has implemented a multifaceted messaging strategy that portrays the Taliban as illegitimate and in a state of disarray. The group has also built up a robust media apparatus, including a new radio station, Voice of the Caliphate, to disseminate its propaganda in Afghanistan. The campaign has fueled popular perceptions that ISIS is gaining strength in Afghanistan and across the world. A September 2015 UN report claimed that ISIS was active in 25 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces and that the number of people declaring loyalty or sympathy to ISIS “continues to grow.” For some of its data, the report relied on Afghan government sources, which stated that some 10 percent of Taliban members are ISIS sympathizers. But ISIS’s future in Afghanistan is not so certain, and the group’s trajectory there will largely hinge on its ability

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