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The motivations and causes of the continuation of ISIS’s presence in Afghanistan

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Farzad Ramezani Bonesh

Senior Researcher and Analyst of International Affairs

In recent years, although several ISIS leaders such as Hafiz Saeed Khan (the first leader of the in ISIS group in Khorasan in July 2016) and his successor have been killed, but the group is still present in Afghanistan.

In addition, many in the Afghan government believe that ISIS’s plans in Afghanistan have reached to nowhere and the group has failed and has lost its fighters (more than a thousand middle and lower ISIS members have been killed) and also its weapons and fighting facilities in the east and south. But the reality is that the group still has influence in some provinces of Afghanistan such as Nangarhar, Kunar, Badakhshan, Jawzjan, Faryab and Nuristan.

In fact, though ISIS may has control over a small territory and according to various estimates, their numbers may vary from less than 2000to 5000, but it seems that ISIS still has a strategic look to its presence in Afghanistan. The following article examines the most important motivations and factors behind the continuation of ISIS’s presence in Afghanistan.


Economic Weakness and Poverty of Afghan People versus the ISIS’s Financial Capacity:

The continuation of any phenomenon depends on enjoying social capacity and economic justification. In fact, the ISIS survival depends on a series of factors. In fact, it does not occur suddenly and is has shaped gradually from It comes from an appropriate social, cultural and economic context.

The economic backwardness and the uneven unequal distribution of wealth have increased the tendency for extremism. Under such circumstances, militant elements such as ISIS have the opportunity to recruit and promote instability in line with their demands. In fact, the ISIS group It makes a lot of money by smuggling and receiving money in exchange of releasing of hostages and prisoners.

Other internal security and political factors:

At the national level, persistent of instability, the inability of the political power structure to balance between the political groups has provided a favorable ground for the continuation of the ISIS group. Also, other factors such as the weakness of National identity in front of Ethnic identities, social divisions and the process of nation-building, as well as the status of democracy and the flow of elites are very important in maintaining the ISIS presence.

In addition, the power vacuum or vulnerability of the central government could help maintaining the ISIS’s presence. This is at a time when talks between the two main factions, Dr. Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, have finally failed to form a united government and that could creat a significant political and security vacuum and pave the way for the ISIS’ presence in Afghanistan. 

The ISIS’s Desire for geographical development and Afghanistan’s geopolitical and geographical conditions:

The ISIS leaders are keen to establish bases around the world, so they can organize and resume jihad and terrorist attacks even after the defeat in Syria and Iraq. In fact, ISIS presents itself as a state and claims to form a government and, by using the four elements of a state, the people, the land, and the sovereignty, it seeks to take over the land to form its own sovereign state.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan’s geopolitical and geographical conditions are suitable for the formation of partisan groups. Using rugged areas to evade attacks; and they can easily recruit Afghan, Pakistani, and Central Asian fighters, and working with local groups. So, following the defeat in Iraq and Syria, the Khorasan branch of ISIS seems to have a serious focus on the geopolitical and geographical conditions of Afghanistan as an alternative base.

Taliban-US Peace and ISIS’s Hope for replacing Taliban:

The Taliban and ISIS have differences in formation, religion, caliphate, constituent elements, scope of operations, Takfir, organizational structure, etc. And in addition, the number of ISIS forces in Afghanistan is several thousands, which is far fewer than the Taliban. In fact, from the ISIS’ point of view, the Taliban today have nothing in common with the Taliban under the leadership of Mullah Omar except their names.

On the one hand, ongoing efforts to bring peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan between the United States and the Taliban have been made, and on the other hand, the ongoing negotiations between Taliban and the Afghan government is under way. Meanwhile, ISIS hopes that dissident and hard-line Taliban forces (opposed to peace) will split from the group and join ISIS. Indeed, there is still hope among ISIS leaders in Afghanistan to replace the Taliban in the country.

More ISIS presence in Xinjiang and Central Asia or threat of China and Russia:

ISIS is now increasingly becoming a major security threat around the world, including China, Russia and Central Asia. The main issue is not only the presence of these people in ISIS-controlled areas, but their return to Xinjiang and the China threat.

In another dimension, Russian officials have previously claimed that the ISIS is building a military base in Afghanistan and that it is a gateway for ISIS to enter the Central Asian region and make the region and Russia insecure. Given Russia’s approach toward the Syrian war and its heavy blows on ISIS, it is certain that the group will seek revenge on Russia in the region.

So it seems that the ISIS group will use Afghanistan as an important training center for its forces and continue to recruit citizens from various Central Asian countries.

In fact, it seems that the ISIS’s efforts to be more present in the north-eastern and northern border regions of Afghanistan and (bordering China and Central Asia) is in this regard.

Threatening India and its Interests and allies in Afghanistan:

According to some sources, part of the Khorasan ISIS in Afghanistan consists of some Pakistani fighters. On the other hand, the Islamic State has carried out attacks against the Sikh minority and the interests of India over the past year. The ISIS has also sought to reduce India’s influence in Afghanistan reinforce recruiting ISIS members in Afghanistan and the Indian subcontinent (against the Sikhs and Hindus), since the beginning of clashes between Muslims and Hindus in India.

Blowing to Afghan Shiites and Iran’s Allies:

ISIS seeks to foment Sunni-Shiite divisions in Afghanistan by targeting Shia and Hazara minorities on the one hand, and on the other hand, taking into consideration the presence of the Afghan Shiites allied of Iran (Liwa Fatemiyoun) in Syria. In other words, ISIS attacked Shiites in Afghanistan. It seems now that ISIS is seeking to increase the gap between the Afghan Shiites and Hizara populations and Iran and to introduce the Shiites as Iran’s fifth colimn in Afghanistan.

ISIS alliance with al-Qaeda and other extremist groups in Afghanistan

Based on the US-Taliban peace agreement, the Taliban have pledged to cut ties with terrorist groups, especially al-Qaeda. In addition, there are currently more than 20  terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan, which the largest and most dangerous one is the ISIS terrorist group.

So, in fact, along with peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, the ISIS will seek to expand cooperation with al-Qaeda, Turkistan Islamic Party, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Hizb ut-Tahrir and other extremist movements. If ISIS can unite members of radical Pakistani, Afghan, Central Asian and Xinjiang groups, it could be more powerful.

That means, if ISIS wants to see Afghanistan as its next base, now is a good opportunity to build it as soon as possible and bring together hard-line groups in Afghanistan following its defeat in Syria and Iraq.