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ISIS Claims Afghanistan Attacks


In the longest-running U.S. war, there were two deadly attacks in the last two weeks in Kabul, Afghanistan, both claimed by ISIS as the Afghan government attempts to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. This latest attack - twin suicide bombings killed at least 25 people, including several journalists. The attacks were coordinated, so the second bomb went off as reporters and photographers arrived on the scene. We're joined now by Seth Jones. He's the director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies to talk about ISIS and Afghanistan. Welcome to the program.

SETH JONES: It's great to be on. Thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We always hear about the Taliban in Afghanistan, but tell us who these ISIS fighters are. Are they former Taliban? Are they survivors from the campaigns in Iraq and Syria?

JONES: The vast majority of this - of these ISIS members are actually former Pakistan Taliban. They're individuals that defected in 2014 and 2015, and they migrated over to the Islamic State or ISIS.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's dig down here. I'd like to talk about their tactics, first of all. I mean, they're targeting civilians and, specifically, it seems, journalists. This isn't new, necessarily. But is that something that they're known for?

JONES: Unlike other more indigenous groups to Afghanistan - like the Taliban, which generally tries not to kill civilians, at least as much as possible - ISIS in Afghanistan has done exactly the opposite. Much like their brethren in Iraq and Syria, anybody is game.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How big a threat are they? Have they eclipsed the Taliban?

JONES: Well, I think one has to put ISIS in Afghanistan into perspective. They are not a populist movement. They don't have a large support base either among Afghans or a large number of fighters. U.S. estimates are down in the 2-to-3,000 realm, which is an order of magnitude lower than the Taliban. But what they're willing to do is to conduct high-profile attacks against Afghan and international targets in cities like Jalalabad and Kabul. And that makes them certainly a threat, but it doesn't make them a threat to overthrow the Kabul regime.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is there coordination between the Taliban, or are they rivals?

JONES: They're predominantly rivals. In fact, there was a branch in 2015 of ISIS in Afghanistan in Farah and Helmand provinces. And they were actually former Afghan Taliban members. And what the Taliban did to them is largely decimated them through a range of set-piece battles and then targeted assassinations. They compete with each other over ideology, over target sets, over recruits. So in general, they are in a very competitive battle right now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me a little bit about their different ideologies and aims, these two groups that are contesting each other.

JONES: If you read the propaganda, for example, of ISIS, what they'll say is they consider the Taliban regime to be one that only views creating an emirate within state boundaries, within Afghanistan. What ISIS really wants to do is create a Pan-Islamic caliphate not within specific boundaries but across a wide region. They also target Shia in ways that the Afghan Taliban don't.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What does it say that ISIS is now in Afghanistan? I mean, what does it say about where we are now in this very long-running conflict?

JONES: Well, I think the fact that ISIS is still in Afghanistan tells us at least two things. One is that it does have staying power, even in places like Afghanistan. The U.S. and the Taliban have been attempting to target ISIS in Afghanistan for at least the last 2 1/2 years, and they have survived - and not just survived, but they've conducted a number of very high-profile attacks. It also says that any U.S. statements that ISIS, whether it's in Iraq or Syria, has been crushed - to use the words in the U.S. national security strategy - are way too early to say. I mean, the organization will almost certainly continue to operate in Iraq and Syria, as well as in countries like Afghanistan, Egypt, Nigeria and Libya. So this one is not over.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Seth Jones of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, thank you very much.

JONES: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.