The emergence of the Islamic State has added a new, even more ruinous, element to the violence in Afghanistan. While the Afghan Taliban, seeking a seat at the table in peace talks with the US, hit the Afghan government and sensitive security installations, the IS goes after predominantly civilian targets. This combination has led to greater insecurity, with everyone a potential target. On Wednesday, the IS struck again, this time killing at least 30 people and injuring over 50 others after a suicide bomber detonated near Kabul University. The attack coincided with the start of Nowruz and it is believed the suicide bomber intended to target a shrine near the area. The IS has previously gone after Shia targets, killing nearly 50 people in an attack on a Shia cultural centre in Kabul last December. The Taliban may still be the primary militant group in Afghanistan but the IS has proved equally deadly. It is not believed to be large in number; yet its fighters and suicide bombers are able to pull off some of the most devastating attacks in the country. This latest attack shows one of the problems that will continue to afflict Afghanistan even if a peace deal is reached with the Afghan Taliban. There are now so many different militant groups, all working with their own agendas, that even if the Taliban are neutralised it does not guarantee an end to violence.
The IS had been written off as a militant force in the past. Last April, the US described it as a spent force and then even dropped its “mother of all bombs” on an IS facility in Afghanistan. In July, it killed Abu Sayed – the head of the group in Afghanistan – in an airstrike. That, too, did not disrupt the group’s operations. If anything, it has become even deadlier since then. The chances of the IS taking over significant portions of territory is remote but the group relies on massive attacks as a way of breeding fear and insecurity. Taking on the IS does open the door for some cooperation with Pakistan. This is the one militant group out of dozens in the region that is an equal threat to both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Its members move across the border between the two countries and so an effort should be made to curtail its movement and work together to stifle the group. The only way to defeat the Islamic State is by denying it space to operate.