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A militiaman in Nangarhar Province in eastern Afghanistan, where the Islamic State has been active, on Feb. 15, 2019.JIM HUYLEBROEK/The New York Times News Service

Ruchi Kumar is an Indian journalist based in Mumbai who covers South Asia.

A terrorist attack on Moscow’s Crocus concert hall on Friday has resulted in more than 130 deaths and left several hundreds injured. Responsibility for the complex attack, one of the deadliest in Russia in decades, was immediately claimed by Islamic State – more specifically, according to U.S. intelligence officials, the terrorist group’s branch in Central Asia (particularly Afghanistan), known as the Islamic State – Khorasan Province (ISKP). U.S. intelligence has confirmed this claim, though Russia’s foreign ministry has questioned it.

Islamic State, which fully emerged in 2014 out of the conflict in Iraq and Syria (where Vladimir Putin has supported Bashar al-Assad’s regime), lost power and influence following successful counterinsurgency efforts across the globe. However, the Taliban’s 2021 takeover of Afghanistan has facilitated the militant group’s resurgence as the country’s authorities struggle to rein in ISKP, an offshoot that aims to create a caliphate in the historic Khorasan region. Now, it is orchestrating more frequent and deadlier attacks, both regionally and in Afghanistan; on the same day as the attack in Russia, at least 21 people were killed in an ISKP suicide bombing in Kandahar.

In some ways, the Moscow attack should not have been a surprise. A recent monitoring report released earlier this year by members of the United Nations Security Council observed a “high concentration of terrorist groups in Afghanistan,” with the “greatest threat” from the ISKP. The resurgent terrorist outfit has been conducting frequent attacks with “greater lethality,” according to an assessment last year by the UN’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, which also documented more than 190 suicide-bomb attacks by ISKP in major cities in the region since 2022, including large-scale attacks on Russian and Chinese embassies in Kabul. And in February, Andrey Serdyukov, the chief of the Joint Staff of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), warned that the increased presence of ISKP and other terrorist camps in northern Afghanistan represented “the main threat to the stability in Central Asia.”

What is unfortunate is the way that the Taliban, who have deprived Afghans, particularly women, of their basic rights and dignity, have effectively empowered this resurgence. ISKP is a sworn enemy of the Taliban, as the group seeks to destabilize existing governments in the region, and so Afghanistan has joined the global counterinsurgency effort against this group – allowing the Taliban to portray themselves as allies in the pursuit of international recognition for their government. Taliban leaders have also repeatedly insisted that they’ve been successful in maintaining security in the country, preventing the use of Afghan soil for global terrorist activities – a condition of the Doha agreement that the Taliban signed with the U.S. in 2020.

In reality, however, they have struggled to rein in terrorist groups. Security reports and experts have estimated that as many as 6,000 foreign fighters may have moved into Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. In the last year, the UN report noted, “the presence of foreign terrorist fighters harboured by the Taliban has become an increasing security threat to many neighbouring countries.” And while there have been regular operations against ISKP cells, the government simultaneously denies the extent of their presence in the country, even claiming as recently as last year that “no foreign armed group is active in Afghanistan.”

What’s more, the Taliban even directly assisted this resurgence, having released thousands of criminals, including hundreds of ISKP militants, from Afghan prisons as they took over Kabul. Many of the released fighters went on to conduct several major attacks, including one at the Kabul airport by an ISKP suicide bomber that killed nearly 200 fleeing Afghans and 13 U.S. service members in August, 2021.

With the under-resourced Taliban regime in power in Afghanistan, groups such as ISKP have been allowed unregulated movement to regroup, mobilize fighters and recruit new members, even from the Taliban’s own ranks, with many members sympathizing with Islamic State’s fundamentalist ideologies.

In fact, the Taliban’s ideological sympathies with certain terror groups, such as al-Qaeda and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), means that they have been reluctant to act against the threats posed by them to the regional countries. This double standard – where the Taliban portray themselves as allies against ISKP, while supporting their own preferred selection of terrorist groups – is in direct violation of the Doha deal, and has posed challenges for governments seeking to engage with them to mitigate security threats spilling across the borders from Afghanistan.

The insecurity in Afghanistan calls for a cohesive and intergovernmental approach on counterterrorism that includes regional stakeholders. But more importantly, any counterinsurgency policy should aim to press the Taliban to uphold its commitments to the Doha deal and target all terrorist outfits in Afghanistan, so that the country does not become a safe haven for international terrorism.

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