The Islamic State in Khorasan (IS-K) expanded rapidly in Afghanistan in 2015-17, but during 2018 the crisis of the Caliphate in Syria and Iraq started eventually to affect it. Although the number of IS members moving to Khorasan from Syria and Pakistan was at this stage still small, news of the state of near terminal crisis inevitably spread to the ranks of IS-K, affecting morale negatively. Even greater was the inability of the Caliphate to transfer funds to IS-K. Although funds continued accruing to IS-K from the Gulf countries, the organisation did not manage to increase its revenue collection in Afghanistan (the only part of Khorasan where it controlled significant portions of territory) and its overall funding was declined during 2018.
By the summer of 2018 IS-K was losing the ability to sustain its operations effectively in the areas more remote from its centre of gravity in eastern Afghanistan. In other words, it started appearing over-stretched. In August of that year IS-Khorasan suffered its first serious defeat on the battlefield, with the loss of its base in Derzab (North-western Afghanistan) to the Taliban. IS-K sources were admitting in September 2018 that their numbers were going down.
During the second half of 2018 IS-K activities declined markedly. IS-K did not launch any new major offensive against the Taliban in the east, and kept a low profile elsewhere (north-east and south). In Kabul IS-K remained active with a string on indiscriminate bombings in the second half of 2018, but in the first half of 2019 the pace of its operations there decreased considerably.
Doubts about IS-K’s viability started growing. But IS-K was not doomed yet. It took time for the leadership of IS-K to take the decisions that it needed to take in order to secure the funding required to expand its operations again. Efforts to raise that revenue from the mining sector in Afghanistan failed to produce the desired results. In early 2019, however, the leadership of IS-K agreed to partially lift the ban on the narcotics trade, in exchange for hefty payments by a group of smugglers who had approached it.
With funding up again, IS-K was able to resume activities on a larger scale. In April it went on the offensive in Kunar, kicking the Taliban out of several districts, and later in the spring of 2019 went on the offensive in Nangarhar province. Its ranks were expanding again, not only with new recruits, but also thanks to new arrivals from Syria (mostly Central Asians) and a new wave of defections from the Taliban and jihadist groups orbiting around al-Qaeda, such as the TTP (Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan), the remnants of the IMU (Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan) and similar groups. This is important because it brought into IS-K hundreds of experienced fighters. IS-K’s leaders believe that there is great potential for attracting many more, as opposition to peace talks is widespread even among the Taliban’s ranks.
The defections were motivated by the fear, in jihadist circles, that the Taliban would end the war through a peace agreement and would agree to sever relations with the jihadists, and possibly even collaborate in keeping them out of Afghanistan. IS-K then started appearing as the only organisation that could act as the main pillar of a jihadist alliance, intent to maintaining a safe haven in eastern Afghanistan. That in turn might in the future re-direct certain streams of funding from al-Qaeda affiliates, to IS/IS-K.
As of mid-2019, it seems clear that IS-K still considers the Taliban its primary enemy. In a sense, during 2019 the Taliban have become even more so the primary target of IS, as the terror campaign in Kabul had not resumed yet on a significant scale. Destroying the influence of the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan is now an absolute priority for IS-K, which has to seize the opportunity for seizing complete dominance of Afghanistan-based global jihadism.
For the same reason, IS-K today concentrates more of its presence than ever in eastern and north-eastern Afghanistan (in Nangarhar, Kunar, Nuristan, Badakhshan). In this way, the problem of overstretching is resolved. At the moment the Taliban do not have the capacity in eastern Afghanistan to contrast IS-K effectively.
There is also a sense that after seeing its control over IS-K loosen in 2018, the central leadership of IS is trying to reassert itself; it has now nominated for the first time an Arab as governor of Wilayat Khorasan, so far only known with his nom de guerre, Abu Zar. Among the ranks of IS-K circulate insistent rumours that after much delay some senior figures of the Caliphate might be making their way to Afghanistan soon. This is not implausible, given that for any “senior figure” of IS, staying put in Syria does not seem a safer option.
It remains to be seen whether the IS and IS-K leaderships will demonstrate sufficient flexibility to affectively reach agreements with other jihadist groups, which would fall short of mergers into IS-K. In Syria, IS did not manage to form alliances with other jihadist groups even as the situation looked increasingly desperate.