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A Look At The ISIS Presence In Afghanistan


In Afghanistan this past weekend, a suicide bombing that was awful even by the standards of violence that that country endures, at least 63 people were killed at a wedding in Kabul. Now, the group claiming responsibility was not the Taliban, not al-Qaida but ISIS. Yesterday, I sat down with Afghanistan's ambassador to the U.S., Roya Rahmani, and asked her how big a security threat ISIS poses in her country. She told me it's growing.


ROYA RAHMANI: It's growing in number, and it's growing in its intensity. And there are concerns they might be able to recruit some of the fighters that may not necessarily join the peace process.

KELLY: Speaking there to fears that ISIS might expand its presence in Afghanistan as President Trump eyes bringing U.S. forces home. Well, for more on this, let's bring in Kelly Magsamen. She tracks Afghanistan from her perch at the Center for American Progress, and she is a veteran of the National Security Councils of both Barack Obama and George W. Bush. Hey there.


KELLY: Hi. So do you agree with that assessment of ISIS in Afghanistan, small but growing?

MAGSAMEN: I agree that ISIS is one of many Islamic extremist groups in Afghanistan, and I think it is certainly a potent threat and a persistent one but certainly by no means the predominant threat, which is clearly still the Taliban.

KELLY: Let me ask this because one thing that distinguished ISIS from other terror groups in other part of the world was physical territory, the caliphate. Do they control any territory in Afghanistan?

MAGSAMEN: They do not, which makes it somewhat different than the ISIS threat in Iraq and Syria. But that said, there is roughly about 2,500 to 3,000 of them that are currently in Afghanistan. But they also, you know, face a severe rivalry with the Taliban that has an interest in also putting pressure on them.

KELLY: Rivalry would be the best way to describe the relationship between ISIS and the Taliban.

MAGSAMEN: Absolutely. You know, the Taliban is in the middle of this peace process. I think ISIS is looking to potentially disrupt that peace process. Their aims are very different, both within Afghanistan and globally. Taliban and ISIS have actually clashed in Afghanistan before.

KELLY: So expand on what ISIS wants. You said they want to disrupt the peace process. To what end?

MAGSAMEN: Well, certainly, ISIS in general has sort of designs around having a territory of some sort. ISIS in Khorasan, which is the name ISIS in Afghanistan, does have similar objectives of establishing a caliphate. Now, this, of course, is somewhat distinct and different from what the Taliban's objectives are, which are to find some sort of power sharing arrangement with the Afghan government and to come back into political power.

KELLY: Let's widen this out and speak about the state of ISIS globally. What do we know about the relationship between ISIS in Afghanistan and other ISIS branches worldwide?

MAGSAMEN: Certainly, pledges of allegiance have occurred between different branches. ISIS, you know, essentially, it suffered a major territorial defeat in Iraq and Syria and is now in the phase of regrouping and figuring out how to achieve its objectives in different ways.

KELLY: How do we square that with the statements by the Trump administration, including the president himself, that the Islamic State has been defeated?

MAGSAMEN: I don't think the Islamic State has been defeated. It certainly suffered a serious blow under the military strategy of the Trump administration. And, frankly, the Barack Obama ISIS strategy was really put in place towards the end that actually defeated ISIS. So they're definitely on their back foot. Now, that said, I think ISIS is going to continue to be somewhat of a persistent threat to the United States. So we're going to have to take a step back and look at how we counter ISIS over the long term.

KELLY: And just to circle back to where we began with ISIS in Afghanistan, what is the danger as the U.S. contemplates bringing security forces, U.S. troops, home from Afghanistan in terms of possibilities of growth of this group?

MAGSAMEN: I think that the question of Afghanistan once again becoming a safe haven for transnational terrorists has always been a potent risk. And it has always been the driver of American military presence in Afghanistan. That said, the question mark I have is whether or not a permanent U.S. military presence in Afghanistan is actually going to resolve the terrorism problem that we have, both in Afghanistan and around the world. So it's a question of balancing the risks to U.S. national security interests versus strategic opportunity costs for the United States of remaining militarily engaged in Afghanistan.

KELLY: That's Kelly Magsamen. She is vice president for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress.

Kelly Magsamen, thanks.

MAGSAMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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