Note: This analysis was completed on the morning of August 28, 2021, however the situation in Afghanistan is rapidly changing. On Sunday, August 29, a US drone strike targeted a vehicle outside Kabul airport that was reportedly carrying “a substantial amount of explosive material.”
On Thursday, August 26, as the United States and other Western countries raced to evacuate their nationals and Afghans from Kabul airport, suicide bombers detonated explosives outside the airport’s gates, where crowds waited anxiously for entry. The attack resulted in more than 100 deaths, including thirteen American soldiers. The Taliban quickly condemned the attack, which most experts and US government officials attribute to the Islamic State-Khorasan, or IS-K. Yesterday, in retaliation, the US conducted a drone attack against an IS-K planner in eastern Afghanistan, purportedly killing the target.
Who are IS-K, and why do they have a dispute with the Taliban? According to experts, the group consists of defectors from the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban known as Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP), and the Islamic State of Uzbekistan. This group shares the larger ISIS ideology that rejects the modern international state system. Rather than an independent state, IS-K views Afghanistan as part of the Khorasan region—a province in the larger global caliphate. These globalist aims put IS-K in conflict with the Taliban’s nationalist ones. Although both IS-K and the Taliban fought against the Americans, the groups fundamentally disagree on what peace looks like following the US withdrawal.
Splintering within insurgencies is not uncommon. The Irish Republican Army has produced a variety of splinters including the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA; Somalia’s al Shabaab is an offshoot of the militia of the Islamic Courts Union; the Islamic State in Syria resulted from a fracture in al Qaeda and competition between the two groups. Our research found that governments typically choose to negotiate with only one faction of an insurgency, as was the case with the US and the Taliban. Taking part in negotiations helps to legitimize the faction included, giving them the power to implement peace without considering the preferences of other factions in the insurgency. In the case of Afghanistan, the Trump administration’s decision to negotiate only with the Taliban has ultimately left them on the cusp of achieving sovereignty over Afghanistan.
Taliban sovereignty, however, runs contrary to the goals of IS-K, which favors pushing for a global caliphate and rejects the concept of an Afghan state. This dynamic creates what we refer to as an internal commitment problem within the insurgent movement. In the short term, the Taliban could try to pacify IS-K by promising to support their calls for continuing a global conflict. But these promises would have no credibility once the Taliban consolidates its control. Instead, the Taliban is most likely to move ahead with implementing their vision for Afghanistan, and marginalize IS-K’s calls to rebuild the caliphate.
Our research, along with others, indicates that excluded factions respond to these internal commitment problems by turning to terrorism. These attacks are provocation: they signal that the faction included in negotiations—in this case, the Taliban—is either incapable of implementing peace or is untrustworthy and has no interest in doing so. In both cases, the purpose is to draw a government adversary back into conflict.
In Afghanistan, it may be working. Following the attacks, President Biden stated, “To those who carried out this attack, as well as anyone who wishes America harm, know this: We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.” These statements suggest that the US could take several steps that could effectively undermine the Taliban’s sovereignty, like delaying withdrawal to conduct operations targeting IS-K, increasing the perimeters around the airport, or escalating drone strikes, which in turn will undermine the ability of the Taliban to establish sovereignty over the territory. Each of these actions further emphasize the Taliban’s lack of a monopoly on force within their territory. Further, the attack undermines the perception of Taliban strength and cohesiveness at home, potentially fuels resistance to the group’s rule, and advertises IS-K as an alternative.
This strategy, and the success of these attacks, hinges on compelling the US to escalate. Undoubtedly, each terrorist event increases the vulnerability of President Biden and opens the door for challengers to claim that his policy was weak, naive, and poorly executed. The president may therefore authorize some military action to mute these claims. These actions will target IS-K and will likely harm the group, but the brunt of the political damage will fall on the Taliban. An American military response would signal to all groups that the Taliban do not have complete sovereignty. With that in mind, any group wishing to challenge the Taliban may offer to help the US fight terrorism, or, conversely, provoke attacks to punish the Taliban. The US is already warning that further attacks at the airport may soon follow.
There is also a possibility that IS-K could attempt to provoke the US by attacking a target on American territory. The probability of a successful terrorist attack in the United States is low—lower than the risk of a traffic accident or being hit by lightning. And IS-K does not appear to have the capability to stage such a transnational attack.
The bottom line is: IS-K’s terrorist attack last week was not meant only, or even primarily, to harm the US. Instead, it intends to provoke the US into punishing the Taliban. Any US retaliation is therefore inadvertently doing their bidding.
Navin Bapat is a permanent contributor at Political Violence At A Glance, and a professor in Political Science and the chair of the Curriculum of Peace, War, and Defense at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Rebecca Best is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Missouri at Kansas City.