Constant ISIS terror attacks are challenging the Taliban’s tenuous grip on power in Afghanistan

A recent string of deadly terror attacks across Afghanistan has left the country reeling, challenging the Taliban’s already strained governance just eight months after the US withdrawal.

An explosion at a mosque on Friday in Afghanistan’s capital city Kabul killed at least 10 people and left 20 others injured, according to multiple reports.

It’s the latest in a series of attacks this month that have targeted mosques, schools, and buses — leaving dozens dead and hundreds more injured. And the attacks have not been limited to Kabul — people have also died in the northern cities of Mazar-e Sharif and Kunduz.

Some of the carnage has been officially claimed by ISIS-K, also known as the Islamic State in Khorasan Province, and is the terror group’s Afghanistan affiliate.

But Michael Kugelman, an expert on the region at the Wilson Center, a DC-based think tank, told Insider he believes most — if not all — of the attacks were carried out by ISIS-K.

The reasoning behind this surge in violence? ISIS-K — a rival of the Taliban — is essentially looking for ways to make the Taliban look bad and undermine its legitimacy.

Kugelman said ISIS-K also wants to “push back” against the Taliban’s narrative that it restored peace and stability across the country in the wake of the US departure.

“If Afghans are seeing things blown up left and right, obviously that flies in the face of that Taliban narrative,” Kugelman said.

Who is ISIS-K — the Taliban’s enemy?

ISIS-K made its presence known in the region in 2015, and has fought against the Taliban for years now.

According to a 2018 report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, ISIS-K has also clashed with US, Afghan, and Pakistani security forces.

In the months leading up to the Afghan government’s collapse last year, ISIS-K launched dozens of attacks — more than it did in 2020 — according to the Wilson Center.

But it wasn’t until late August, just days before the last US troops left Afghanistan, that ISIS-K attracted the most attention.

An ISIS-K suicide bombing killed at least 169 Afghans and 13 US service members at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul as civilians frantically tried to flee the country.

President Joe Biden vowed revenge.

“We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay,” he said at the time. “These ISIS terrorists will not win.”

The US State Department said in November it was “committed” to using counterterrorism methods to fight ISIS-K, “as part of our relentless efforts to ensure Afghanistan cannot again become a platform for international terrorism.”

Kugelman told Insider that ISIS-K has been strengthened by both the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the US withdrawal — including the release of thousands of ISIS-K prisoners after the Afghan government fell last August.

Challenging Taliban legitimacy

The collapse of the Afghan military and the departure of NATO forces also meant weapons were abandoned and ready to be claimed, Kugelman said — leaving ISIS-K fighters without having to worry about airstrikes as a counterterrorism method.

Afghanistan’s crippling economic and humanitarian crisis has also provided an environment for radicalized individuals to be recruited by ISIS-K, Kugelman said.

ISIS-K has several goals in Afghanistan, Kugelman said, including stoking sectarian tensions, sowing chaos and instilling a general sense of unease. The group, he added, wants to “terrorize as many people as they can,” with no limits as to who might be targeted.

But as the Taliban struggles to govern Afghanistan for in its second tenure, it has less capacity to stamp out the threat posed by ISIS-K, Kugelman said, adding that the militant group is in over its head with — an unable to contain — the threat posed by ISIS-K.

“Unfortunately, I think that in a moment when Afghanistan is suffering incredibly from this terrible economic crisis, that the terrorism problem is going to continue to get worse,” Kugelman said. “And obviously, it’s the Afghan people that suffer the most from all of this.”