Get ready to hear a lot about ISIS-K between now and August 31. Joe Biden mentioned the Islamic State offshoot in his speech yesterday as a reason to stick to his bug-out deadline in Afghanistan. Biden called them “a sworn enemy of the Taliban,” and claimed that they are mustering forces for an attack on both the US and Taliban at the airport in Kabul:
There are real and significant challenges that we also have to take into consideration. The longer we stay, starting with the acute and growing risk of an attack by a terrorist group known as ISIS-K, an ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan — which is the sworn enemy of the Taliban as well — every day we’re on the ground is another day we know that ISIS-K is seeking to target the airport and attack both U.S. and Allied forces and innocent civilians.
It’s worth pointing out that the White House never raised the issue of ISIS-K as a threat in Kabul until a week ago, when the catastrophic collapse in Afghanistan was well under way. By that time, the Biden administration had already come under heavy criticism for sticking to their self-assigned August 31 deadline. Biden’s first mention of ISIS-K didn’t come until Monday, after several attempts to slough off responsibility for the debacle and explain why Americans stuck behind Taliban lines aren’t the highest priority.
Concerns about security around Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul have increased based on “a very specific threat stream” from ISIS-K about planned attacks against crowds outside the airport, a US defense official has told CNN.
The US believes ISIS-K, which is a sworn enemy of the Taliban, wants to create mayhem at the airport and has intelligence streams suggesting it is capable and planning to carry out multiple attacks, according to the official.
ISIS-K denotes a splinter group from the core ISIS organization in Syria and Iraq, which has largely been suppressed. Based in Khorasan, the group used to hold some territory in Afghanistan until the Taliban sweep this month rooted them out. There has been animosity between ISIS-K and the Taliban all along, but “sworn enemy” overstates the issue. In fact, the Taliban has absorbed some ISIS-K defectors, and has clearly eclipsed them as the leaders of an “emirate” in Afghanistan:
US intelligence officials believe that some of Isis-K’s recruits are Taliban defectors, while there have been unconfirmed reports of the Taliban executing at least one senior Isis-K figure since taking over Afghanistan.
Earlier this year, the Taliban claimed to have wiped out the entire Isis-K presence in the northern province of Jowzjan. It has also seized northwestern territory held by Isis-K in recent weeks.
And in Jalalabad, a city in eastern Afghanistan, hundreds of Isis-K fighters have surrendered to the Taliban.
It’s certainly possible that ISIS-K still has enough capability to launch some sort of spoiler attack at Karzai International Airport. And it’s a contingency we should consider, of course. How likely is that, though? The Taliban have now fully and quickly invested Kabul, and have begun house-to-house hunts for collaborators, dissidents, and anyone who could potentially challenge their authority. If ISIS-K is surrendering by the hundreds in Jalalabad, they’re not likely to poke their heads up in Kabul any time soon.
Even to the extent that this threat is credible and real, it also gives Biden and his team a handy excuse for sticking to that August 31 deadline — even if it means leaving Americans behind. It also speaks volumes that Biden and his team are calculating that it’s easier to get out than to deal with ISIS-K’s threats directly. The Taliban didn’t appear to have much difficulty taking out ISIS-K on its way back to a totalitarian grip on the entire country of Afghanistan.
The ISIS-K threat assessment is also pretty convenient for the Taliban, too. They can leverage it to enforce their already-declared policy of refusing to let Afghan nationals into the airport for evacuation, no matter whether or not we have issued them SIVs for their exit. Oh, sorry, they can say, these are suspected ISIS-K sympathizers. Shame if anything happened to your evacuation, right?
Finally, if ISIS-K is this big of a threat to US forces, why wasn’t this White House prepared for that threat? Why was the first mention of ISIS-K as a threat against our forces in Kabul well after the collapse of order in the capital? Those questions become even more acute if ISIS-K actually does manage to conduct an attack on the airport during our evac. It will just demonstrate the complete incompetence of this administration on strategy, tactics, preparation, and execution. That’s the biggest threat to national security at this moment.