Last Thursday, an attack at Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai airport in Kabul killed scores of Afghan civilians and multiple American service members. The Islamic State Khorasan, or ISIS-K, immediately claimed credit for the airport attack. The group is an Afghan offshoot of the ISIS organization we’re familiar with—the one that terrorized Iraq and Syria. As the U.S. wraps up its withdrawal and evacuation efforts in Afghanistan, which groups are vying to fill the vacuum? And as we watch the chaos unfold, what kind of outcome should we be hoping for, from afar? To find out, I spoke with Colin Clarke, director of policy and research at the intelligence and security consulting firm the Soufan Group, on Monday’s episode of What Next. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Seth Stevenson: As soon as the U.S. withdrawal neared its conclusion this summer, the Taliban swept across the country and seized power. The next question became: How would the Taliban govern? Are they even capable of governing?
Colin Clarke: I have my doubts that the Taliban is capable of running the country. And frankly, I think that’s what the Biden administration is banking on. I think it’s hoping that the Taliban, because of that, will have to compromise and work with other groups and ultimately get to some kind of power-sharing arrangement in Afghanistan. But the Taliban doesn’t strike me as a group that is amenable to sharing power.
As things stand, there’s uncertainty over how much control the Taliban has in Afghanistan. ISIS-K, an even more hard-line rival of the Taliban, is one of the groups hoping to exploit that uncertainty. It’s a group that was formed as the original ISIS organization was losing its foothold in Iraq and Syria.
In response to aggressive Western counterterrorism efforts, these groups decentralized and relieved some of the pressure off the core. If you look at where the Islamic State is active or has been active, you’re talking about Libya, you’re talking about West Africa and the Sahel, the Philippines, and certainly Afghanistan is another node in that in that network. ISIS lost its last territory in Syria in the spring of 2019. I identified ISIS-K as one of the most potent ISIS affiliates and a group to be concerned about going forward.
When we talk about ISIS-K, how big is it, and what kinds of backgrounds do these fighters come from?
The U.N. has put out estimates of it having 1,500–2,200 fighters. This is a group that’s comprised of battle-hardened fighters, some from other extremist groups in Pakistan that are also highly sectarian. My main concern is that an event like what we saw at the airport—a high-profile terrorist attack—is intended to draw recruits to the organization, like “Look, we’re going to be the winning horse here. Come join our side.”
Beyond building itself and getting these recruits, what’s the larger goal of ISIS-K now?
I think there are several goals. I think ISIS-K wants to embarrass the Taliban and humiliate them and show Afghan civilians that the Taliban might have been an effective insurgent force but is not capable of governing the country. A group like this, just like the core group in Iraq and Syria, is going to look to carve out a piece of territory and govern it. But I don’t think we’re ever going to see a situation akin to what we saw in Iraq and Syria, where you had 40,000 foreign fighters from different countries and a group controlling territory the size of Great Britain. Moreover, even within Afghanistan, the Taliban are the top dog. The Taliban and their allies will be able to militarily keep their foot on the neck of ISIS. They just have, quantitatively and qualitatively, an advantage in that regard. So I don’t think ISIS is ever going to usurp the Taliban, but it’s also not going to go away without a fight.
The focus is on ISIS right now because of this attack. But you’ve said that al-Qaida is also an emergent threat there. What’s the web of relationships between the Taliban, al-Qaida, ISIS, and other groups in Afghanistan?
The Taliban are very, very closely aligned with al-Qaida, not only the al-Qaida core in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also affiliates like al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent. They’re all on one side. ISIS-K is on the other. If there’s any connective tissue or sinew between these groups, it’s probably the Haqqani network.
The Haqqani network is a part of the Taliban. It’s a jihadi group that goes all the way back to the Osama bin Laden years in Afghanistan, as part of the mujahideen. It’s a major power broker in Afghanistan, a highly capable network that is responsible for a lot of the attacks in Kabul. There have been jihadis who have fought on multiple sides of this conflict at various points.
The decision to pull out of Afghanistan was never going to come without trade-offs. As we’ve seen in the past couple of weeks, some of those trade-offs are deeply painful.
There are no good options. It’s not like there was this clear, obvious winning strategy that the president just neglected. We’ve never had a strategy. And this is a bit of a cliché you may have heard, that we haven’t fought a 20-year war in Afghanistan—we’ve fought a series of 20 one-year wars.*
Some of the risks as we leave Afghanistan are less about Afghanistan itself and more about other countries—in some cases, our rivals—that will look to use this fluid situation to advance their own interests.
With the United States leaving, the Iranians, the Russians, the Chinese, the Pakistanis, the Turks, the Indians—they’re going to cultivate their own proxies and look to exert influence in that country. We’re going to have very little leverage.
What does the bombing do in terms of how other countries in think about Afghanistan?
It depends on the individual country, I think some countries are circling over like a vulture, right, looking to feast on a carcass. They’re looking to get access to mineral wealth. They’re looking to develop potentially proxy forces that could be used in other conflicts. So how about Pakistan? What do they see when they look at Afghanistan? Well, they see the potential to use terrorist and insurgent groups and other violent non-state actors one day against India in Kashmir. That’s always been their game. The long game, right. Saving these guys for a rainy day. The Chinese have that. The Chinese are primarily driven by economic concerns,//he Russians have potential blowback from Chechens. There’s so many different scenarios here. // So, you know, what I foresee is a really muddled situation, a very unstable situation. And the more actors you have in a civil war, both states and non-state, the longer that civil war lasts.
Are we back to square one in Afghanistan, where we started 20 years ago—or what, if anything, is different now than it was then?
No, I think it would be unfair to say we’re back to square one because al-Qaida is significantly diminished from what it was. We’ve spent 20 years hollowing that organization out. That said, they have the capability to regenerate now, but they’re nowhere near as dangerous as they were. And our capabilities are much better. So it is different, and I cede that point to the president. My concern is, going forward, does that change? And if it does, how quickly does it change?
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Correction, Aug. 30, 2021: Due to a transcription error, this piece erroneously had the interviewee saying the U.S. has fought a series of 21-year wars. He actually said the U.S. has been fighting a series of 20 one-year wars.