Deadly Attack on Kabul University Claimed by Islamic State-Khorasan Province
On November 2, an explosion and hostage situation at the Kabul University followed by a six-hour battle between three gunmen and Afghan security forces resulted in 22 dead and 22 wounded. After hearing an explosion and gunfire minutes past 11 a.m., thousands of students fled the campus through three gates, as other students were trapped on campus and killed or injured by gunfire. The Islamic State’s affiliate group, Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-KP), claimed responsibility for the attack at the university; the Taliban denied involvement. Afghan Special Police Forces killed the three gunmen with assistance from U.S. troops from the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission (RSM). They cordoned off the university campus then rescued hundreds of students. The attack coincided with the opening of an Iranian book fair at the university that several dignitaries attended. It is unclear if the attack specifically targeted the Iranian book fair, since none of the dignitaries were reported injured. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani condemned the terror act, calling it an “attack on Afghanistan’s honor, progress and bright future,” and announced that November 3 would be an official day of mourning.
This is the second attack targeting civilians in the past month. On October 24, a suicide bombing in an educational center in Kabul killed 24 people and wounded 70. IS-KP also claimed responsibility for that attack. The Afghan security forces have worked with U.S. forces over the past three years to fight IS-KP, especially in the eastern provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar where the terrorist group remains powerful. After the February agreement between the United States and the Taliban in which U.S. forces would be withdrawn over the course of 14 months, the Taliban agreed not to attack U.S. troops, and their attacks in cities decreased. In September 2020, the Afghan government and the Taliban engaged for the first time directly in Doha, Qatar; however, talks stalled as disagreements on procedural rules for future negotiations impeded progress.
Although the Afghan government, the United States, and the Taliban have been engaged in negotiations to bring about a peace settlement, attacks from terrorist groups like IS-KP and al-Qaeda complicate and threaten Afghan stability. U.S. Central Command head, General Frank McKenzie, said that the United States provided “very limited support” to the Taliban in its fight against IS-KP. However, another defense official stated that the United States has since “essentially stopped engaging” Taliban units that fight IS-KP.
While IS-KP poses a challenge to a successful peace process in Afghanistan, providing limited support for or developing a limited partnership with the Taliban to combat IS-KP is hazardous. U.S.-Afghan-Taliban relations are precarious, and the Taliban have yet to prove their willingness to work with the United States and Afghan government to the level necessary to provide crucial support in a joint effort to fight IS-KP in the country. The proposed withdraw of U.S. forces in Afghanistan would create a power vacuum in the region, allowing IS-KP to establish itself in the region while the Afghan government and Taliban struggle to cooperate. To mitigate the possibility of growing IS-KP power, the United States and other RSM-member countries should support the progression of peace talks between the Afghan government and Taliban and continue the security and financial support of the Afghan security forces through 2024 as outlined by the RSM.