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A picture made available on 01 August 2015 shows Gul Dali (R) the district leader of Islamic State (IS) sitting with colleagues and his family at an undisclosed location in Kunar province, Afghanistan, 30 July 2015 (EPA/GHULAMULLAH HABIBI +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/G. Habibi

Würzburg attack and 'IS' presence in Afghanistan

Shamil Shams, Masood Saifullah
July 19, 2016

In March, the Afghan government declared victory over "Islamic State" (IS), but the group's recent gains in the country reveal a different story. How big is the IS threat in Afghanistan, and are officials downplaying it?


According to media reports, hundreds of people in the eastern province of Nangarhar were recently displaced after days of heavy fighting between IS militants and government troops.

The clashes began on June 24, when IS-affiliated jihadists attacked an army checkpoint in the province's Kot district. "More than 160 'Islamic State' militants have been killed," said Attaullah Khugyani, spokesman for the governor of Nangarhar.

"IS militants also set fire to 90 houses that belonged to residents of the district," Khugyani said. He claimed the government had pushed the militants back.

"When the troops failed to push IS back, some local residents came out in the government's support. Now the IS fighters are taking revenge," Hekmatyar, a 19-year-old Kot resident, told DW.

Afghan families flee the area after clashes between Afghan security forces with Islamic State (IS) militants in Kot district of Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, 26 June 2016 (Photo: picture-alliance/dpa/G. Habibi)
Hundreds of people have feld their homes following IS attacks in eastern AfghanistanImage: picture-alliance/dpa/G. Habibi

Is Kabul downplaying threats?

In March, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani declared victory over IS following a months-long military operation. According to US military estimates, no more than 3,000 IS fighters reside in Afghanistan, mostly believed to be confined to a border region near Pakistan. Both Kabul and Washington consider the Taliban to be a bigger security threat than IS.

But the situation in Nangarhar and other parts of the war-torn country indicates that IS is gaining ground in the war-torn country and that the Afghan government may be underestimating the group's strength.

IS, which controls vast swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria, is recruiting a large number of fighters in Afghanistan. Many of these belong to the Taliban's splinter groups. Security analysts fear that Taliban factionalism could lead to more defections of frustrated militants to IS.

"IS remains the major problem for the Taliban movement. It is gaining strength and the Taliban infighting will help this process," Siegfried O. Wolf, a Brussels-based South Asia researcher, told DW.

On July 6, US President Barack Obama shelved plans to cut the US forces in Afghanistan to 5,000 by the end of 2016, opting instead to keep 8,400 troops there through the close of his presidency in January next year.

Experts say that an increased role for the US troops in Afghanistan not only signals Washington's willingness to support the Afghan government for a longer period of time, but also highlights growing concerns about a surge in violence in the country.

Regional cooperation

But Wahid Mazhda, an expert on the Taliban in Kabul, believes that, while IS could recruit some fighters from small Islamic groups in Afghanistan, it is unlikely that the group could attract a large following in the region.

"IS and the Taliban are very different ideologically and culturally. In Pakistan, however, they could find some supporters, and they already have," he told DW. "Central Asia is more attractive for IS because there are a number of dictatorial regimes, and some extremist groups there have already shown a willingness to join them to overthrow the regional governments," he added.

Afghan protesters march during a demonstration, over the killing of seven Shiite Hazaras, in Herat on November 12, 2015 (Photo: Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images)
Afghans are weary of the increasing violence in countryImage: Getty Images/AFP/Aref Karimi

The Afghan government accuses Pakistan of supporting Islamist militants, and some experts believe Islamabad's lack of cooperation in the fight against terrorists emboldens both IS and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, including Nangarhar.

The current security situation, analysts say, demands that President Ghani take the IS threat more seriously and urge Islamabad to cooperate in the fight against the terror outfit.

Pakistani recruits?

The IS presence might be limited in Afghanistan, but there is a possibility that the militant group might get assistance, and possibly fighters, from neighboring Pakistan.

The Islamic republic has a reputation of being a breeding ground for Sunni militant groups. Afghan authorities have repeatedly accused Islamabad of supporting the Taliban and other militant groups and sending them into Afghanistan to destabilize the government.

Although Pakistan does not consider IS an ally or a group which can fulfill its strategic interests in the region, things can change. The Saudi-Wahabbi doctrine of Islam can also be a binding factor.

Chances of an IS-Taliban alliance

The two groups are on hostile terms with each other, despite the fact that both are dominated by Sunni extremists.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani addresses a press conference at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on December 31, 2015 (Photo: SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)
Is President Ghani taking the IS threat seriously?Image: Getty Images/AFP/S. Marai

Experts are of the view that while there could be some cooperation between IS and the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, a proper alliance between the two extremist groups is "highly unlikely."

"There are certainly ideological convergences between the two groups, but otherwise there are simply too many factors that constrain the possibility of a partnership, much less a close alliance," Michael Kugelman, Afghanistan expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, told DW.

Analyst Mazhda shares that view. He believes that, while it is possible for some small Islamic groups in Afghanistan to join IS, the Middle Eastern militant group would face ideological difficulties in recruiting fighters from Afghanistan.

Observers also say that no country in the region wants Afghanistan to fall under IS' control. But would the IS threat be a sufficient reason for all players, including the main Taliban group, to find a solution to the protracted Afghan crisis?

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