The terror group's leadership and fighters have been decimated, but as the US looks set to reach an accord with the Taliban, Daesh could become more violent as a means to prove its relevance.
The lethal suicide blast carried out by Daesh at a wedding celebration in Kabul, Afghanistan on Saturday killed 63 and injured 182. For many, the strike an indicator that Daesh is still at large.
Lt Gen Abdul Hadi Khalid, currently a researcher at the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies and the former Afghan vice minister of interior, estimates that between 4,000 and 6,000 Daesh fighters are in the country. But Afghanistan’s spy agency puts the number lower, assessing that only 3,000 remain, concentrated along the Pakistan-India border.
With an impending peace accord between the Taliban and the US, Daesh is desperate to stay in the news and will do anything it can to upset the agreement.
Mark Jefferson, an analyst for Stratton Consulting Group, describes their current approach as counter-intuitive.
“They’ll increase their attacks, if only to show their relevance and continued existence, and that they can. But ultimately, resentment will only continue to grow against them. IS-K is banking on the segment of the population disgruntled with accords between the Taliban and the US to support them in future recruitment,” he told TRT World.
A field study by the Center for Strategic Studies however, found that only 600 to 800 Daesh militants remained as of October 2018.
With their numbers waning, Daesh attacks in Afghanistan have become increasingly frenzied and indiscriminate.
Nearly 32,000 Afghani civilians have been killed in the last decade according to a United Nations report. And 2019 alone saw nearly 927 children killed, more than any other year over the last 10 years.
The suicide attack comes ahead of the United State’s move to announce a deal with the Taliban that could see a complete withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, following lengthy negotiations and nearly 20 years of protracted warfare.
As consecutive US presidential administrations ramped down deployments to Afghanistan, the Taliban have quickly retaken or reasserted control over much of the country, leading many to question whether Operations Enduring Freedom and Freedom's Sentinel were a success or failure.
In a report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), as of January 31 2018, only 56.3 percent of Afghanistan was under government control, with up to 14.5 percent under Taliban control, suggesting the group’s power remains relatively unchecked.
The remaining 29.2 percent is highly contested, and not just by the Afghan government and Taliban.
Amidst the chaos and destruction, Daesh has repeatedly attempted to establish itself in the war-torn country.
Dead man’s grip
Following a major campaign in 2017 by US and Afghan forces, Daesh lost major portions of territory.
While the majority of its senior leadership and nearly 75 percent of its fighters have been killed, the group continues to show strong resilience.
Undeterred, from spring 2017 onwards, Daesh launched several major assaults in Kabul, Herat, and Jalalabad, putting to test claims that the group’s fighting strength had diminished.
Reduced numbers however, may not be the end of the group.
Bruce Hoffman, Director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University, believes Afghanistan will serve as the newest base for Daesh now that it has been pushed out of Iraq and Syria.
"ISIS has invested a disproportionate amount of attention and resources in Afghanistan," he says, citing "huge arms stockpiling" in Eastern Afghanistan.
Taliban cannot absolve themselves of blame, for they provide platform for terrorists. Today is the day of mourning, hence #StateBuilder have cancelled today's gathering at the Loya Jirga tent.— Ashraf Ghani (@ashrafghani) August 18, 2019
Meanwhile, Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani vowed to “eliminate” all Daesh safe havens as Afghanistan quietly celebrated its 100th Independence Day, on a day that was overcast by the recent death.
While ridding the region of Daesh is more achievable these days than before, it will likely be a fight till the last man, bringing with it yet another painful price Afghanistan still has to pay.