Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K), the Islamic State’s branch in Afghanistan and Pakistan, arose in early 2015 in perhaps one of the most volatile geopolitical environments in the world. A war-torn Afghanistan with a prolonged U.S. military presence, a fledgling government heavily dependent on external aid, and an amphitheater for competing regional interests proved to be an optimal environment for ISIS-K to establish itself as a durable entity. While sustained counterterrorism efforts by U.S. and Afghan forces and intense clashes with the Afghan Taliban constrained the group in recent years, the U.S. withdrawal and continued political uncertainty in Afghanistan appears to have given the group a new resolve to disrupt the ongoing peace process.
Given ISIS-K’s demonstrated resilience and operational capacity in the past, the risks associated with a revived ISIS-K are too grave to disregard. Increasingly provocative attacks could seed mistrust amongst Afghan actors and impede political and socio-economic advancements, which may facilitate the group’s recruitment of discontented militants, connections with opportunistic militant groups, and acquisition of territorial strongholds. Such developments not only threaten U.S. interests in the region but also increase the likelihood of proxy warfare in Afghanistan. In this context, sustained international support for counterterrorism efforts against ISIS-K in Afghanistan are important in the short and medium term, as well as long-term meaningful regional security cooperation amongst Afghanistan’s neighbors to dismantle the group’s network and thwart its recruitment efforts. In parallel, both U.S. and regional states’ support for socio-economic and political progress remains critical to diminish the ideological influence of extremist groups like ISIS-K.