Attaullah Khogyani, a spokesman from Nangarhar province, says—and the spokesman for American forces in Afghanistan, Lt. Col. Martin O’Donnell, confirmed—that the leader of the Islamic State in Khorasan (ISK), Sad Arhabi, was killed in an airstrike in his province last night. It seems another ten ISK jihadists were killed alongside Arhabi.
Arhabi’s kunya has widely been reported as Abu Sayed Orakzai, though it seems he used Abu Saad Erhabi, too. In either case it is likely Arhabi was from the Pakistani Orakzai tribal agency.
Since ISK was announced on 26 January 2015, the U.S.-led Coalition has eliminated a succession of ISK leaders: in July 2016, Hafiz Sayed Khan was killed in an airstrike; Abdul Hasib was killed in a Special Forces raid in April 2017; and Abdul Rahman Ghaleb (Abu Sayed) was struck down by a drone strike in July 2017.
ISK has played on societal faultlines in Afghanistan, as it has elsewhere, particularly by sectarian attacks on Shi’is, and despite the loss of its leadership the group has only become more entrenched and expanded its operating zones, as documented by Pawel Wojcik. The metrics the West has tended to use in assessing the strength of the Islamic State (IS) are leaders killed, finances, foreign fighters, and territory held. These metrics have misled us before, and might well do again. The reality is, whatever the Coalition might claim, Arhabi’s demise is unlikely to alter ISK’s upward trajectory.
ISK has between 3,500 and 4,000 troops. With the collapse of the caliphate, there was every indication that ISK’s ranks would be bolstered by operatives sent from the centre, and this has been the case. Senior IS officials made their way to Afghanistan, Egypt, and Yemen in particular, helping to strengthen these wilayats (provinces) and simultaneously keep key IS officials out of harm’s way at a time of rebuilding in the Levant. As CNN notes, this trend was documented in a “recent UN report [that] said that ISIS ‘continues to facilitate the relocation of some of its key operatives to Afghanistan,’ including foreign fighters from Europe.”
ISK is, as in the Islamic State’s core areas in Iraq and Afghanistan, opposed by al-Qaeda and the Taliban. It might be thought cold comfort if one set of jihadists prevailed over another, but the Coalition has given signs of approving of the Taliban’s ascendancy and has long been indifferent to the spreading influence of the Islamist regime in Iran as an apparent counterweight to the Islamic State.
This decapitation of ISK comes amid a generally grim picture for the Coalition. There are underlying issues like the narcotics problem. The drug trade threatened the integrity of the Afghan state even ten years ago, was not acted against during the Obama years for various reasons, and every year since the trade has expanded, corrupting yet more official and societal sectors. The recent development is the visibly emboldened Taliban insurgency, which is feeding off the decomposing state. As Craig Whiteside, a fellow at The International Centre for Counter-Terrorism once put it, “if you are losing an insurgency you are being out-governed, not outfought”. The Taliban’s success comes in this model, with a demonstrated capacity to create parallel structures that challenge the government’s control.