Stabilizing Afghanistan: The Need for a Comprehensive Approach

INSS Strategic Assessment, Vol.20, No.4, January 2018



Since the end of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in December 2014, the security situation in Afghanistan has been deteriorating dramatically. On this background, President Trump has advanced a “new Afghan strategy” that focuses on sending more troops, “killing terrorists” and eschewing “nation-building” in order to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorists. Following the adoption of this militaristic approach, it becomes necessary to analyse the problems that have plagued Afghanistan over the past two years so as to identify the most appropriate strategy to stabilize the country. After offering a thorough analysis of Afghanistan’s current situation, the present paper argues that a comprehensive approach that merges military, political and economic measures is the only path to long-term stability.


A far-sighted “new strategy” for Afghanistan?

On Monday the 21st of August, during a speech delivered at the Fort Myer military base in Arlington (VA), President Trump disclosed a revised vision for the American war in Afghanistan[1]. Reconsidering his initial “instinct” to withdraw troops from a war that has become America’s longest (it began in October 2001 after the dramatic events of 9/11) and costliest (it has cost American taxpayers more than $100 billion), Trump announced a “new strategy” for Afghanistan that he says is rooted in “principled realism”.

The first pillar of Trump’s “new strategy” is the decision to increase the number of American troops in Afghanistan. Claiming to be learning from the experience in Iraq –when in 2011 the American forces withdrew too prematurely, leaving behind a vacuum that was promptly exploited by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) to gain terrain and supporters- the President has welcomed the recommendations[2] coming from the Commander of the U.S. Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A) and NATO’s Resolute Support Mission General John W. Nicholson and from the Secretary of Defence James Mattis and has decided to add more American troops to the 11,000 already deployed in Afghanistan[3]. Linked to this decision, is the second pillar of the “new” strategy: while the core aims of the American troops in Afghanistan will remain training the Afghan forces and conducting operations of counter-terrorism, the rules of engagement will be loosened and more flexibility in responding to security threats will be allowed. The third pillar is that decisions will no longer be taken on the basis of pre-determined deadlines but exclusively on the basis of the actual conditions on the ground, in the attempt to contradict the Taliban’s argument that “Americans have all the watches but we have all the time”[4]. Finally, but perhaps most importantly, the American engagement will fulfil the promise made by Trump since the earliest days of his electoral campaign: prioritize American national interests vis-à-vis the interests of foreign countries. In fact, despite arguing that the “new strategy” will witness an integration of all the military, economic and diplomatic instruments of American power, Trump has made no mention to non-military measures and has rather emphasized that the United States in Afghanistan will eschew any effort at “nation-building” and will limit its involvement to “killing terrorists”.

According to Trump, this strategy (if such term can indeed be accorded to the President’s confuse listing of intentions) will succeed in achieving victory. However, as far as “victory” is concerned, the definition provided by the President has remained largely vague: “attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al-Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge”. From this phrasing, it seems that the U.S. end-goal is to stabilize Afghanistan so as to prevent the country from becoming again a safe haven for terrorist groups, as it was throughout the 1990s when the Taliban government offered a sanctuary to bin Laden’s Al Qaeda[5].

A question, though, arises at this respect: is the militaristic approach adopted by Trump an effective “strategy” to solve the problems that have been afflicting Afghanistan over the past two years and bring stability to the country?


Afghanistan: trapped between volatile security, fragile politics and a bleak economy

Since the end of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in December 2014 and its replacement with the more modest Resolute Support mission, Afghanistan has witnessed a deteriorating security situation, as the reduction of international forces deployed on the ground has created remarkable opportunities of action for both old and new violent groups.

Already in the early 1990s, when they moved their first steps from the Deobandi madrasas of Pakistan where they had received their indoctrination to the southern regions of Afghanistan with which they shared the Pashtun ethnic identity, the Taliban proved extremely able to exploit the deteriorating security environment, the inefficiencies of the state and the disaffection of the people towards the central government[6]: launching effective military attacks against local warlords; referring to a shared identity and system of values based on a peculiar fusion between the Pashtun tribal code (Pashtunwali) and Sunni Islam; and replacing Kabul in the provision of public services by means of building schools, mosques, roads, clinics and sharia courts, the Taliban managed to obtain territorial control and popular support in the southern part of the country[7]. From there, they expanded towards the north through a brutal military campaign and in 1996 proclaimed their Taliban Emirate over approximately 90% of the country[8]. However, the Taliban Emirate was a short-lived experiment of jihadi state-building that ended in 2001, when the American intervention under the banner of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) defeated the Taliban and led the remnants of the group’s leadership to relocate in the Pashtun tribal area between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In this new haven in the AfPak area, the group re-organized itself and got prepared for a resurgence when new opportunities of action in Afghanistan would emerge[9].

Those opportunities emerged in 2015, when the reduction of the international commitment in Afghanistan encouraged the Taliban to believe that the time for their return had come. Since 2015, Afghanistan has thus become the theatre of an impressive Taliban resurgence that has seen the group achieve its most significant military successes and territorial gains since 2001. By means of their renewed military campaign, in fact, the Taliban have succeeded in bringing an increasingly large portion of Afghan territory under their control or influence: according to what transmitted by the group[10] in its official site Voice of Jihad, the Taliban enjoy today “full control” over 34 districts, “partial control” over 167 and have a “significant” presence in other 52. These data do not seem to be too distant from what reported by other sources such as SIGAR, that reports a “full” Taliban control over 33 districts and “partial” control over 116 districts[11].

In these areas, the Taliban not only have imposed their presence by using force and spreading fear but they have also drawn on their past experience to win the “hearts and minds” of the people by providing the security and the public services that Kabul does not seem always able to guarantee. As a matter of fact, the introduction of structures of “shadow governance” has enabled the Taliban to consolidate and legitimize their presence and to reap discrete levels of popular acceptance, especially in the southern Pashtun tribal belt that is the group’s traditional stronghold and in those rural and isolated areas that the governing arm of Kabul struggles the most to reach[12].

This resurgence on part of the Taliban has been accompanied by a parallel resurgence of the threat posed by Al Qaeda. The bonds linking Al Qaeda and Afghanistan have to be traced back to the foundation of the group at the time of the Afghan-Soviet conflict: it was indeed after his military experience alongside the Afghan mujahedeen and the exposure to the politico-religious narrative promoted in that context by the fundamentalist ideologue Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, that bin Laden founded Al Qaeda in 1988. Yet, it was not until 1996, when the Taliban Emirate opened its doors to a bin Laden who had been exiled from the Sudan of al-Turabi and al-Bashir, that the linkage between Al Qaeda and Afghanistan gained an indissolubility that not even the U.S.-led OEF could rescind[13]. This “special relationship” between Al Qaeda and the Afghan territory is in fact still evident today in the presence of the group in the de facto ungoverned area stretching across Afghanistan and Pakistan, where bin Laden and al-Zawahiri succeeded in relocating Al Qaeda after the defeat of 2001 thanks to the weakness of Kabul and the connivance of Islamabad. From there, Al Qaeda has continued to project its power over the Afghan militancy and to influence the Afghan insurgency. More recently, then, exploiting the reduction of the international military presence and the subsequent Taliban resurgence, Al Qaeda has managed to reconstitute also a physical presence in Afghanistan by means of opening new training camps in the country’s south-east[14].

Besides the resurgence of the Taliban and the physical reappearance of Al Qaeda, the security of Afghanistan has been negatively affected by another development: the emergence of ISIS-Khorasan as new terrorist group active in the Afghan theatre.  At the apex of its expansion and power in early 2015, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) decided to expand to Afghanistan in order to gain a wilayat of high strategic value and stretch the borders of its self-proclaimed Caliphate[15]. Moved by this intent, in January 2015 ISIS proclaimed the creation of its Afghan branch under the name ISIS-Khorasan (a reference to an ancient name used to designate the easternmost region of the Persian Sassanid Empire) and established its safe haven in the north-eastern province of Nangarhar. From there, the group carried out its first attacks with the aim of expanding its influence over Afghanistan.

Interestingly, at the onset of its Afghan experience, ISIS-K saw its capacity of penetration impaired  by two obstacles: firstly, the fight waged against it by a Taliban  group determined to preserve its credibility as leader of the Afghan insurgency and not disposed to share territory and influence with a new-come group; secondly, the resistance of the Afghan population that regards ISIS-K as an entity that does not belong to the Afghan reality, that  promotes a purist Salafi interpretation of Islam incompatible with the Hanafi doctrine prevailing in Afghanistan and that does not understand nor respect the country’s complex tribal and ethnic mosaic.  Notwithstanding these obstacles, though, ISIS-K has revealed an impressive capability to perpetrate large scale terrorist attacks[16]. This has been especially true over the past year, as the loss of territory in the traditional Jazira region[17] has encouraged ISIS to invest ever more resources and efforts in the preservation and growth of its Afghan province[18].

Additionally, the group has proved able to exploit the aura of brutality gained in the Syrian-Iraqi arena to attract to its ranks some of the most radical members of Tariq-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) who were frustrated by years of unsuccessful jihad and fascinated by the unprecedented military accomplishments of ISIS[19]. Even more relevant, though, was ISIS-K’s ability to co-opt into its ranks all those disappointed Taliban who defected the group in Spring 2015, when the death of the founding father Mullah Omar was disclosed and the leadership was transferred to Mansour among several controversies and bitter discussions[20].

With the resurgence of old terrorist groups and the emergence of new ones, Afghanistan is today a country characterized by an ever-deteriorating security environment that has seen a dramatic rise in the fights between the insurgents and the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), in the number of terrorist attacks and in the number of casualties. As reported by the UN Secretary General, in fact, from the 18th of November 2016 to the 31st of  May 2017 there has been a total of 11,412 security incidents, including armed clashes, improvised explosive devices, targeted killings, abductions, suicide attacks, criminal acts, and intimidations[21]. On the same line, the United Nations Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA) has reported that from the 1st of January 2017 until the 30th of June there have been 5,234 civilian casualties, which amounts to a 1% increase with respect to the same period last year[22]. Of these casualties, UNAMA attributed 43% to the Taliban, 19% to unidentified anti-government elements, and 5% to ISIS-K[23].

Additionally, the revived insurgency mounted by the Taliban and the arrival of ISIS-K has led the government to suffer a considerable and increasing loss of territorial control: as reported by USFOR-A, as of May 2017 45 districts in 15 provinces were under insurgent control (11 districts) or influence (34 districts), which amounts to a 2.2% increase with respect to the situation observed in the same period last year. The number of contested districts, instead, has remained unchanged. As a consequence, today 3 million Afghans live under insurgent control or influence and another 8.2 million live in contested areas[24].

This bleak situation reveals how the NATO and American missions that have been operating in Afghanistan for sixteen years have not been able to cancel the threat posed by terrorism and how the ANSF are still not trained and equipped adequately to fight against insurgents. Called to deal with problems such as the low sophistication of the weapons at their disposal and the lack of access to the most advanced military technologies; the absence of a national strategic culture capable of bringing together uniformly in the army’s ranks all the different components of the Afghan social texture; and the necessity to leave several areas outside of Kabul’s protective umbrella in order to concentrate the forces in the major urban centers and in the regions where the threat to security is most serious, the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP) have often revealed their inadequacy and  their dependency on external military support[25].

To this limited competency and autonomy of the Afghan security forces, it is then to be added further problems such as the endemic corruption among the highest ranks of the military establishment that often impedes the efficient and rapid transfer of weapons, food and munitions from one outpost to the other; the widespread phenomenon of the so-called ghost soldiers who figure in the government’s payroll but de facto do not serve in the army; the high number of defections that creates a climate of mutual suspicion within the army’s ranks; and the threat of infiltrations on part of individuals linked to terrorist groups who penetrate the army to conduct their attacks against military targets[26]. Importantly, these factors not only hinder the efficiency of the ANSF but also compromise their credibility in the eyes of the local people, thus creating a worrying climate of distrust[27].

Besides the deteriorating security environment, Afghanistan’s stability is obstructed also by the weakness of the central government in Kabul and the fragility of Afghanistan’s democratic experiment. When in September 2014 the National Unity Government (NUG) was formed[28] with the Pashtun Ashraf Ghani acting as President and the Tajik Abdullah Abdullah acting as Chief Executive Officer (CEO), it seemed that the country was transitioning towards full democracy and stability. However, hopes were soon contradicted: the patronage, corruption, nepotism and factionalism that have historically characterized the country’s politics, and that find their roots in the predominance of tribal and ethnic associations over national identity, have not spared the NUG[29] and have fostered within Ghani’s government ethnic-tribal frictions and personal rivalries that have often paralyzed policy-making. Hindered by these problems, in many occasions the government has failed to implement on time the reforms promised, to hold the overdue parliamentary elections, to fill all the vacant governmental posts, and to deliver public services consistently and uniformly across the country[30].

In particular, the rural areas geographically distant from or badly connected to Kabul have seen themselves excluded from the government’s reach and have become either dominated by a de facto anarchy or victims of the political games, abuses of power and personal interests of corrupt local governors over which Kabul has no effective system of check and monitor[31]. Similarly, the governing performance of the NUG has been extremely disappointing in the northern regions where warlords like Abdul Rashid Dostum, Ahmad Zia Massoud and Atta Muhammad Noor[32] exercise their power undisturbed thanks to historical clan bonds, as well as in the southern and eastern regions where –as seen above– insurgent groups have managed to assert their territorial control and influence.

On this background, it is not surprising that according to the latest poll conducted by the Asia Foundation[33] the perception of the Afghans of how well governmental institutions are doing their job reached historically low levels in 2016, with only 49.1% of the people saying that the NUG is doing a good job. Satisfaction rates are also low for provincial governments (52.9%), municipal governments in urban areas (42.4%) and district governments in rural areas (50.7%).

Finally, Afghanistan’s internal instability is also to be linked to the weakness of the country’s economy. According to the World Bank[34], from 2015 to 2016 the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) increased by a mean 0.4% due to a decline in the industrial and manufacturing activities that counterweighed the rise in the agricultural production. Furthermore, over the same period the population grew by 3%, which led to an inevitable decline of the overall per capita income. In this context of increasing poverty, domestic demand and private investments have declined; business sentiment has remained largely suppressed; no new firms have been registered and unemployment has remained dramatically high at 24%, leaving many youngsters with no other or better option than joining insurgent groups and criminal networks. Also, the collection of domestic revenues on part of the government has declined by 25% in the past year, leaving the country dependent on foreign aid to finance its public expenditures and balance its budget.

On the same line, the IMF has underlined how poor infrastructures, an inadequate development of the country’s human capital, a weak trade performance due to the temporary border closing with Pakistan, rampant corruption, and the thriving of the illicit narcotics sector are some of the main obstacles to the country’s economic development[35].


The need to look beyond the military

From the analysis above it emerges how Afghanistan’s instability is linked to security as well as political and economic factors. In front of this complexity, the militaristic approach adopted by President Trump appears profoundly inadequate to stabilize the country: while the increase in the number of troops is to be welcomed because it can strengthen the military capabilities of the ANSF and reduce the military threat posed by insurgent groups, a strategy that eschews “nation-building” and does not couple military measures with political and economic ones will fail to bring lasting stability to Afghanistan.

On the political level, it is necessary to address the low legitimacy that impairs the government of Kabul and that has driven many Afghans to support the alternative structures of “shadow governance” established by tribal leaders, warlords and insurgents. This can be done by ensuring a more balanced division of powers through the introduction of a quota system whereby the appointment of governmental officials and institutional figures guarantees a proportionate and fair degree of direct representation to all of the country’s diverse ethnic groups. Doing so is crucial to encourage all Afghans to trust the national government regardless of their subnational ethnic identities. Secondly, it is necessary to fight the corruption, nepotism and patronage that are eroding the credibility of the Afghan political system. This requires establishing clear requirements of transparency for all the nominations to official positions through ad hoc regulations and creating anti-corruption agencies in charge of ensuring that those requirements are respected and that punitive measures are enforced in case they are violated. Finally, it is crucial to pursue reconciliation between Kabul and those many powerbrokers and insurgents that act outside of the legitimate institutions of the state and whose military and proto-governance activities pose a serious challenge to the credibility of the central government. Following the precedent set in 2015 by the Quadrilateral Coordination Group composed of the Unites States, China, Russia and Pakistan[36], efforts should continue to be made to help Kabul to identify potential partners of dialogue among its current opponents and initiate negotiations with them.

On the economic level, a crucial measure is the launch of development projects aimed at modernizing agricultural production and incentivizing industrial activities in order to stimulate economic growth and create new jobs. Equally important is the promotion of trade between Afghanistan and regional as well as international partners. This can be done by means of reducing the current regulatory and operational barriers and investing in the improvement of Afghanistan’s infrastructure system. Finally, it is necessary to counter the production of narcotics by resorting to a mixture of interdiction (prevent narcotics from reaching their destination) and eradication (physical destruction of the illicit crops). On the one hand, Afghan law enforcement agencies and police have to be trained, equipped and provided technical support to detect and seize the shipments of illicit drugs; on the other hand, the Afghan state must offer material incentives for the abandonment of poppy cultivation and develop economic projects that can offer licit and profitable alternatives to farmers.

Unlike what suggested by President Trump, engaging in similar measures of nation-building is not “dictating” Afghans how to live, but rather helping them to govern themselves effectively and to live the peaceful life to which every human being is entitled. However, moving from the theoretical definition to the actual implementation of these measures is especially problematic since Kabul lacks the ability, Washington lacks the willingness and Brussels lacks both. As it was the case in other contexts of nation-building from Kosovo to East Timor[37], the only way ahead for a long-term stabilization of Afghanistan seems thus to lie in the cooperation among a variety of actors that have a shared interest in making the “heart of Asia” a safe, prosperous and self-sufficient country. This multiplicity of actors includes regional states such as India, China and Russia; international powers such as the United States and the European Union; Afghan officials and experts; transnational organizations such as the United Nations, NATO and the World Bank; aid and development agencies such as the United Nations Development Program (UNDP); international and regional NGOs. Until a similar multilateral and multidimensional cooperation in nation-building is achieved, the hopes that war in Afghanistan will end remain an illusion.

[1] For the transcript of President Trump’s speech: “Full Transcript and Video: Trump’s Speech on Afghanistan”, The New York Times, August 21, 2017,

[2] Michael R. Gordon, “U.S. General Seeks “a Few Thousand” More Troops in Afghanistan, The New York Times, February 9, 2017,

[3] H. Cooper, “U.S. Says It Has 11,000 Troops in Afghanistan, More Than Formerly Disclosed”, The New York Times, August 30, 2017,

[4] Con Coughlin, “Afghanistan: the clock is ticking for Obama as the Taliban bides its time”, The Telegraph, April 12, 2009,

[5] For an account of the relationship between Al Qaeda and the Taliban, see for instance: L. Wright, The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (New York: Alfred A. Knop, 2006)

[6] Ahmed Rashid, Taliban (London, I.B. Tauris, 2010) Ch.1-3

[7] Ibi.

[8] Ibi., Ch.3

[9] Ibi., Ch.17

[10] Bill Roggio, “Afghan Taliban lists ‘Percent of Country under the control of Mujahedeen’”, Long War Journal, March 28, 2017,

[11] Bill Roggio, “Taliban controls or contests 40 percent of Afghan districts: SIGAR”, Long War Journal, May 1, 2017,

[12] “The Taliban”, Council on Foreign Relations (!/taliban?cid=marketing_use-taliban_infoguide-012115 ); A. Giustozzi, “Hearts, Minds, and the Barrel of a Gun: The Taliban’s Shadow Government”, Prism, Vol. 3, No.2, March 2012

[13] See: L. Wright, The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, (New York: Alfred A. Knop, 2006)

[14] Katherine Zimmerman, “Al Qaeda’s Strengthening in the Shadows”, Statement before the House Committee on Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence
on “The Persistent Threat: Al Qaeda’s Evolution and Resilience”, American Enterprise Institute, July 13, 2017

[15] Seth G. Jones, “Expanding the Caliphate: ISIS’s South Asia Strategy”, Foreign Affairs, November 6, 2015

[16] Global Terrorism Database:

[17] Literarily “island”. The term designates a region mainly comprised between the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers. Today the area is divided in two halves by the Syrian-Iraq boundary. It roughly coincides with the Syrian governorates of Raqqa, Hasakah and Deir el-Zor and with the Iraqi provinces of Nineveh and most of Salah al-Din and al-Anbar. It is the area upon which ISIS proclaimed its Caliphate in June 2014.

[18] M. Torfeh, “ISIL in Afghanistan: a growing threat”, Al Jazeera, August 20, 2017,

[19] Caitlin Forrest, Richard DeKold, “Warning Update: the Expansion of ISIS in North-Western Afghanistan”, Institute for the Study of War, February 22, 2017,

[20] Ibi.

[21] UN, Report of the Secretary-General, The situation in Afghanistan and its implications for international peace and security, June 15, 2017, p. 4.

[22] UNAMA, Afghanistan Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict: Midyear Report 2017, July 2017

[23] Ibi.

[24] USFOR-A, response to SIGAR data call, 5/15/2017, 3/01/2017, and 5/28/2017; SIGAR analysis of USFOR-A provided data, 6/2017

[25] Caitlin Forrest, “Afghanistan Partial Threat Assessment”, Institute for the Study of War, November 22, 2016,; John F. Sopko, Testimony Before the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Committee on Armed Services, U.S. House of Representatives, “Assessing the Capabilities and Effectiveness of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces”, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, February 12, 2016

[26] Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction,

[27] “A Survey of the Afghan People: Afghanistan in 2016”, The Asia Foundation,

[28] Full text of the government of national unity deal available at:

[29] Sameer Lalwani, “Ambling Blindly Back Into the Mountains: 5 Hard Questions for the Next Phase of Afghanistan”,, February 23, 2017,

[30] Pamela Constable, “Afghan President is under siege as violence, joblessness persist”, The Washington Post, August 13, 2017,

[31] R. Qobil, “At the mercy of Afghanistan’s warlords”, BBC, November 28, 2012,

[32] Ahmed Rashid, “Trepidation at the return of Afghan warlords”, Financial Times, May 31, 2017,; Shawn Snow, “Fortress Kabul and Afghanistan’s Warlords”, The National Interest, September 6, 2016,; Shawn Snow, “Afghanistan Still Hasn’t Recovered From the Soviet Invasion”, The National Interest, July 31, 2016,

[33] “A Survey of the Afghan People: Afghanistan in 2016”, The Asia Foundation,

[34] World Bank, “Navigating Risk and Uncertainty in Afghanistan”, Brussels Conference on Afghanistan, October 4–5, 2016, 9/28/2016, pp. 2, 5–6,; World Bank, Afghanistan Development Update, 10/2016, p. 13,

[35] IMF, “Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Request for a Three-Year Arrangement Under the Extended Credit Facility”, IMF Country Report, No.16/252, July 2016,

[36] J. Boone, “Afghanistan and Taliban peace talks end with promise to meet again”, The Guardian, July 8, 2015

[37] J. Dobbins et al., The Beginner’s Guide to Nation-Building (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2007)

Photo credit: NOORULLAH SHIRZADA/AFP/Getty Images


The Day After the Islamic State

Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Strategic Assessment, Vol.20, No.3, October 2017


 Marta Furlan, Carmit Valensi



The territorial losses suffered by the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) over the past year, the fall of the Caliphate’s stronghold of Mosul and the encirclement of its de facto capital al-Raqqa indicate the imminent military defeat of the Islamic State. However, the ideological vacuum, frustration, and alienation that have been characterizing communities in the Middle East since the “Arab Spring”, the absence of a political alternative and the lack of a local effective governance to replace IS, raise the possibility that IS will survive its military defeat. In this context, it becomes imperative to assess how this entity is most likely to evolve. In providing such assessment, attention will be devoted to IS’s past evolution to deduce from it about its future. This will be followed by a discussion on which measures should be taken to deal with the “new” form of IS.

Key Words: IS, Al Qaeda, Jihadi Terrorism, War against IS

The Evolution of ISIS: 2003-2014

Before analyzing how IS is most likely to react to its military defeat in Syria and Iraq, a brief overview of the group’s evolution will allow to shed light on its capacity of adaptation and re-organization as a possible indicator for its future transformation.

The origins of IS are to be traced back to the 2003 Iraqi context and to the insurgent group al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad (TwJ) that under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi initiated a ruthless campaign of terrorist attacks against the forces of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).[i] However, the group’s operative capability was constrained by the lack of financial resources and by an excessive reliance on foreign fighters that impaired the group’s integration in the Iraqi insurgency.[ii]

It was to deal with these weaknesses and enhance the image of TwJ among the Iraqi militancy that in 2004 al-Zarqawi pledged baya’a (allegiance) to bin Laden, who on his part was interested in extending Al Qaeda’s influence over the Iraqi theatre after the setback suffered in Afghanistan. After this association with Al Qaeda, TwJ was rebranded the Land of the Two Rivers or Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and became a prominent actor of the Iraqi militant scene. Its influence grew particularly after the parliamentary elections of December 2005, when al-Zarqawi united the insurgent groups close to him under an umbrella organization known as Majlis Shura Council (MSC) in order to co-opt the other jihadist organizations[iii] and increased AQI’s violent attacks on Shiite targets in order to create inter-communal tensions that would strengthen the Sunnis’ support for the insurgency.[iv]

Against this background, in 2006 al-Zarqawi was killed in a targeted killing by a joint U.S force and his death turned into a major hindrance for AQI. Since the outset, in fact, the group’s internal cohesion, the inner coordination between its ranks, and the identity unifying its members had been dependent on the presence of a centralized structure built around the figure of al-Zarqawi. With his demise, the centralization that had enabled the group to assert itself as one of the most prominent actors of the Iraqi insurgency collapsed and AQI underwent a significant process of organizational restructuring and strategic re-thinking.[v] The group was re-organized under the dual leadership of Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi; its cadres were “Iraqified”; and its cells underwent a process of “bureaucratization and dilution” that subjected them to an inefficient bureaucratic apparatus and that led them to be unduly widespread across Iraq.[vi] As a result, AQI came to experience a high level of internal fragmentation and a fundamental lack of coordination that restrained its operational capability and that became the major weakness of the group.

In terms of modus operandi, the military and terrorist operations that had characterized the activity of the group since its earliest stage remained the core of AQI’s strategy but were redirected towards a new objective as the group endeavored to create an Islamic State in Iraq and in 2006 rebranded itself ISI. However, the violent military campaign embraced by the group was met with resistance in several areas of Iraq, such as the Anbar province. There, the local Sunni tribes resisted ISI’s attempt to impose its rule and in 2008 created military councils (sahwa) that fought the group, undermined its operative capacities, and damaged its credibility.[vii]

Therefore, when in 2010 al-Masri and al-Baghdadi were killed the general perception was that ISI was doomed to dissolution. However, in that same year Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became the new leader of the group and promoted a comprehensive re-organization thereof on the basis of the past successes and mistakes: he strengthened ISI’s internal bonds so as to increase its cohesiveness; re-introduced a centralized leadership revolving around his figure that enabled to reach high levels of operational capability and coordination; and simplified the inefficient bureaucratic apparatus of the previous stage.[viii] On the strategic level, he moderated the brutal approach that al-Zarqawi had adopted against his enemies –and in particular against the Iraqi Shias- and that had ultimately alienated the support of much of the Iraqi people’[ix] divided the ranks of the Iraqi Sunni resistance,[x] and aroused the criticism of al-Zarqawi’s mentor al-Maqdisi and of most of Al-Qaeda’s leadership, including bin Laden and al-Zawahiri.[xi]

In addition to this re-structural endeavor and strategic re-thinking, al-Baghdadi adapted the group’s goal of building an Islamic State to the destabilizing changes occurring throughout the Levant in the immediate aftermath of the “Arab Spring” erupted in December 2010, and in particular the collapse of traditional nation states; the loss of legitimacy on part of most regional governments; and the exacerbation of the Sunni-Shia sectarian divide. On the background of these developments, al Baghdadi extended ISI’s tactics beyond the purely militant-terrorist dimension in order to enhance the effectiveness of the group’s action. After identifying in the Sunni heartland encompassing western Iraq and eastern Syria the preferred location of his future Islamic State, al Baghdadi focused the group’s activities on both countries thanks to the high coordination enabled by the renewed centralized leadership. In both contexts, ISI proved its capabilities at the military as well as at the social level: on the one hand, it fought successfully against the enemies encountered on the ground; on the other hand, it attempted to adopt a more state-like structure and provided the population with goods (e.g. food) and services (e.g. education) that their governments were incapable of providing.[xii] Exploiting the incapability of the governments in Baghdad and Damascus to address their people’s basic needs and political demands; the weakness and ultimate collapse of the state structure in Iraq and Syria after the “Arab Spring” revealed the illegitimacy of their central governments; and the alienation experienced by the local Sunni communities, IS managed to present itself as the only legitimate alternative and to gain popular support among the Sunnis. In this way, ISI succeeded in extending its territorial control over several portions of Iraq and Syria and, after disassociating itself from al-Qaeda,[xiii] on 29th June 2014 it proclaimed the establishment of the Islamic Caliphate of Iraq and al-Sham (IS), thus realizing the aspiration of its founding father al-Zarqawi.

From the Early Successes to the Latest Defeats: 2014-2017


Having reviewed IS’s emergence from the ashes of AQI and ISI, it is informative to delve briefly into the Caliphate’s history from the conquests and strengths of the initial period to the defeats and weaknesses of the past months.

With the proclamation of the Islamic Caliphate, the group led by al-Baghdadi completed its transition from traditional terrorist group engaged in violent military activities to quasi-state organization engaged in the provision of governance, including goods and services as well as order and security through the use of policing and law enforcement apparatuses. In completing this transition, the group adopted an efficient governmental pyramidal structure; it established ad hoc state-like institutions; and it expanded the range of its non-violent activities.  At the top of the pyramidal structure there are al-Baghadi and his two direct deputies who constitute the executive branch known as al-Imara and who are in charge of transferring al-Baghdadi’s orders to the provincial governors. Below al-Imara, the pyramidal structure is composedof eight councils: [xiv] The Shura Council (responsible for religious affairs); The Legal Council (responsible for resolving family disputes, violations of law, and the imposition of penalties); The Security Council (responsible for internal security and the enforcement of public order); The Intelligence Council (that supplies and conveys information to the leadership regarding rivals and opponents); The Military Council (that deals with warfare and preparations of the territories of IS); The Economic Council (responsible for the movement’s financial resources, including the sale of oil and weapons); The Fighters’ Aid Council (responsible for receiving foreign volunteers, smuggling them to different areas, allocating housing and addressing their different needs);  The Media Council (responsible for the dissemination of IS’s messages and official declarations and managing the group’s accounts on social networks and monitoring other sites in coordination with the Legal Council)[xv]

At the bottom of the pyramid, there is a large pool of both foreign and local fighters who are organized in three levels. This structure enables the leadership to control members more tightly, to assign military and governmental tasks more efficiently, and to deploy fighters more effectively in the areas of combat.

By means of this coherent state-like structure that distinguishes IS from traditional terrorist entities, the group led by al-Baghdadi has managed to assert its control over large spheres of public life and to expand its social activities[xvi]: it has built roads and bridges; organized recoveries for the poor; provided electricity; established lines of telecommunication; set up markets for the trade of goods; created offices for the collection and the distribution of the zakat; opened schools; maintained public order and security through the deployment of police forces; and guaranteed law and order through the establishment of sharia courts.

Additionally, besides providing services to the population, IS has also continued to rely on military means to fight its enemies and to employ violent tactics such as public executions and tortures to spread terror among the population and thus prevent popular uprisings against its rule. By means of this duality of tactics, IS has managed to consolidate its territorial control over the Sunni-dominated Jazira region and enforce its rule thereupon[xvii]; to seize control of the natural resources of the conquered territories and exploit them for purposes of self-financing[xviii]; and to obtain support, or at least acquiescence, on part of a frightened and disaffected local population.[xix]

However, IS’s early success began to decline after the group reached the maximum of its expansion in mid 2015. Since then, IS has been suffering several defeats that have considerably reduced the territories and the population under its control: as reported by HIS Conflict Monitor[xx] and by RAND Corporation,[xxi] IS’s territorial control has declined by 60% from 2015 to 2017 and the number of people living under IS has decreased from 9.6 million in fall 2014 to 2.6 million in winter 2016-17. Besides these territorial losses, the group’s income has similarly declined over the past few years, dropping from $1.9 billion in 2014 to $870 million in 2016.[xxii] As a recent study by ICSR has highlighted, in fact, the loss of territorial control has implied for IS the loss of its major sources of revenue, above which the oil reserves on which the group’s income was highly reliant and that contributed to making it the “richest terrorist organization in the world”.[xxiii]

This combination of territorial and financial losses has undermined IS’s governance capabilities because the group has found itself without the territorial control necessary to enforce a credible rule and a viable state-like structure and without the financial resources necessary to sustain an efficient governance apparatus. As a consequence, IS has diminished its governance dimension and has focused instead on military activities aimed at ensuring the group’s survivability and rebuilding its presence in the lost areas.[xxiv] At this respect, it is noteworthy how IS’s territorial and financial losses have led it to abandon the conventional military campaigns mounted by al-Baghdadi since the early days of his leadership and to return to the guerrilla warfare launched by al-Zarqawi during AQI’s first phase.[xxv] Guerrilla warfare, in fact, has considerable advantages vis-à-vis conventional military operations: it can be sustained by a group even when the financial resources are limited; it can be carried out effectively by small cells; it does not require the group to have territorial control. This shift in IS’s modus operandi could be seen during the battle for Mosul, when the group relied mostly on tactics of asymmetric urban warfare, including mortar shells, booby traps, IEDs and suicide car-bomb attacks.[xxvi]

Finally, in the framework of the recent territorial losses, IS has undergone an adaptation of its strategic thinking whereby it increasingly emphasizes the importance of striking the “far” Western enemy and the necessity for its fighters to spread beyond the Jazira region and join jihadists all over the Muslim world.[xxvii] In other words, IS seems to have extended its previously localized strategy and to have embraced a more internationalized strategic discourse similar to the one traditionally espoused by Al Qaeda. It is in the context of this rethinking that IS-inspired individuals have directed their terror activities against major European cities such as Paris, Brussels and London and that IS loyalists have joined the jihadist battlefields in places like Libya, Afghanistan and South-East Asia.

Nevertheless, IS continues operating in the Levant area and has not completely abandon its local-territorial feature so far. According to the Pentagon, about 20,000 IS fighters still control several areas in Syria and Iraq (August 2017). Between 5,000 and 10,000 fighters are now in the middle Euphrates Valley area running from Deir Ezzor to the Iraq-Syria border region[xxviii].

These recent developments and adaptations that have occurred within IS raise important questions over the next phase of the group’s life and make it imperative to provide an assessment of how IS is most likely to evolve.

What Future for IS After its Military Defeat?

In light of the above-seen resilience and capacity of adaptation that the group has displayed over its 15 year-long existence, the present paper argues that, once militarily defeated, the group will not disappear but will rather change its form and adapt to the changed circumstances: the most likely scenarios in terms of the group’s internal evolution as far as its organizational re-structuring and strategic re-thinking are concerned are the following:


  • “Mini-emirates”– Evolution of the group into several mini-entities scattered across the Middle East and beyond (e.g. North Africa, South Asia) in what would be a much lose network highly similar to the post-2001so-called Al Qaeda Nebula. Rather than surviving as a single and unified group, IS might split into more sub-groups ideologically-linked one to the other but inherently independent in terms of financing, definition of objectives, strategic planning, and actual conduct of operations; at the core of this scenario lies the assumption that the Salafi-jihadi current is too rooted and established in the Islamic world, hence does not necessarily dependent on a central and well-structured organization in order to flourish.
  • “Jihadi merger” – Rejoining -in a more or less tight way- of al-Zawahiri’s Al Qaeda in order to regain the lost status and deal with the setbacks suffered in terms of financial sustainability, ideological credibility, and recruitment ability. Once defeated militarily, IS might find it convenient to pursue again that “marriage of convenience” with Al Qaeda that first took place in 2004 so as to expand its ranks, acquire more operational capabilities, and enhance its status in the global jihadist world. This scenario lies on the assumption that despite some setbacks, Al Qaeda remained strong, resilient, and guided by a prudent strategy of winning over populations and subverting local conflicts to its own ends. This move not only would give new life to IS but it would also reassert Al Qaeda as the uncontested leader of the jihadi movement and probably encourage it to learn from IS’s experience and adopt more state-like tasks and features. It is important to stress however that this scenario is less likely to be manifested in the short term as the level of mutual hostility between IS and Al Qaeda would be hard to Al Qaeda loyalists describe IS operatives as “extremists,” “Kharijites,” and “takfiris”; the Islamic State, in turn, has named Al Qaeda devotees as “the Jews of jihad” and loyalists of the “Sufi” leader of the heretical Taliban. Hence, this split could be simply unbridgeable.
  • “” – On July 2017, IS information office in Raqqa province, Syria released a 30-minute video that focuses particularly on presenting foreigners from various countries who came to join IS: “This is a message to the new pharaoh of today, Donald Trump, you may have your eyes on Al-Raqqah and Mosul, but we have our eyes on Constantinople and Rome. ’Bi Idhn Allah, Bi Idhn Allah [with Allah’s permission], we will slaughter you in your own houses.”[xxix] This scenario includes the maintenance of a small and underground nucleus in the Jazira region (namely the Sunni tribal region stretching across western Iraq and Eastern Syria) where IS first emerged and expanded and shift of the strategic focus on the inspiration of attacks in foreign countries (e.g. European countries, USA etc.) by means of an ad hoc ideological propaganda mostly conducted on-line. The end of the “Caliphate dream” will thus lead the group to revise its original objectives and strategy and to shift from aiming at hitting the “close enemy” by means of military campaigns and territorial conquests, to aiming at hitting the “far enemy” by means of on-line radicalization and recruitment of sympathizers residing abroad. Fairly robust external operations arm that has really been built over the past three or four years even before the caliphate or the Islamic State was declared. And this network certainly exists in Europe and elsewhere – in South Asia, North Africa as well. Last September, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of IS, called upon his followers not to come to the Levant in Iraq to fight, but instead to migrate to the branches and to strengthen the branches so that precisely the branches could continue the struggle.
  • “The Comeback” – Resurgence of IS in the areas from which it was expelled. This resurgence is a possibility that is likely to concretize under three specific circumstances: Firstly, if the international coalition fighting against IS makes the same mistakes that it did in the past when it withdrew too promptly from Afghanistan because assuming erroneously that the Al Qaeda menace had been eradicated successfully and permanently and that the mission had been accomplished. However, that assumption stemmed from a fundamental underestimation of Al Qaeda’s capacity to survive and re-invent itself and indeed Bin Laden’s group proved able to transfer its base to the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and to evolve into a more complex and less easily-detectable “Nebula”; Secondly, IS’s resurgence might occur if the different actors that are currently involved in the fight against IS refrain from addressing properly the problem of which path to follow in the “day after IS” and do not draft any coherent and viable politico-social plan of reconstruction for the liberated areas. Thirdly, is the permanence of the factors that enabled IS’s rise in the first place. In other words, if the root causes that created a fertile ground for the group to find support among a Sunni population that felt marginalized and estranged from the Iraqi nation-state are not addressed it is likely that the remnants of IS will regroup. Similarly, if the Salafi-jihadist ideology inspiring IS’s weltanschauung is not countered with a credible and appealing ideological-religious alternative, IS or new IS-like manifestations are likely to (re)appear on the scene.

Conclusions and Recommendations

This paper argues that IS’s imminent military defeat will not imply its disappearance tout court. Rather, it will imply the end of its existence in its actual form and the emergence of a different but not less threatening entity.

In light of the possible scenarios that were proposed as far as IS’s future development is concerned, the following measures will need to be taken in order to deal effectively with the group’s new threat at the local and international level:

  • At the local level, reduce the likelihood of a resurgence of IS (or like entities) by addressing the causes that paved the way to the group’s emergence and the factors that favored its consolidation. In this regard, it will be crucial for the Iraqi government to address the grievances, alienation and disaffection that the Sunni communities felt under Nuri al-Maliki’s tenure and that led many among them to see in IS a desirable alternative to the sectarianism of Baghdad. For this to be done, a political compromise that ensures power-sharing between the country’s ethno-religious groups; reforms that guarantee that state institutions offer national rather than sectarian representation; and the effective implementation of a 2013 decentralization law[xxx] that devolves more autonomy and responsibilities to the single local governments will need to be encouraged and emphasized as the only way to resolve those inter-communal tensions that foster insurgencies and state failure;
  • Rebuild the areas – both urban and rural–freed from IS by means of an ad hoc cooperation among the Iraqi government, its partners of the U.S.-led coalition, the United Nations and aid agencies so as to address effectively the economic, security and social needs of the local communities and offer to them credible alternatives to the institutions and services provided by IS at the apex of its state-building project;
  • Continue and improve further the training, equipment, assisting and advise of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) as developed in the framework of the Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) in order to enhance the effectiveness of the ISF in countering terrorism and countering insurgencies and to increase their legitimacy, credibility and trustworthiness in the eyes of the local communities;
  • At the international level, confront the security threat posed to Western countries by IS, IS-inspired individuals and returning “foreign fighters” by addressing both the pre-recruitment and the post-recruitment phase. and obstruct IS’s on-line propaganda; increase intelligence cooperation and database sharing to detect radicalized individuals; address the problem of returning “foreign fighters” by adopting responses that can range from “hard” measures such as revoking citizenship, confiscating passports and issuing arrest warrants, to “soft” measures such as developing programs of de-radicalization, psychological counseling and social re-integration.

Finally, past experience shows that these measures are more likely to be effective when local actors and international actors manage to coordinate their endeavors and share responsibilities. Therefore, while preparing for the “day after IS”, efforts need first to be invested in building this crucial coordination.




[i] Angel Rabasa et al. Beyond Al Qaeda. The Global Jihadist Movement (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2006) p.139

[ii] Brian Fishman, “After Zarqawi: The Dilemmas and Future of Al Qaeda in Iraq”, The Washington Quarterly 29, no. 4, Autumn 2006

[iii] Nibras Kazimi, “The Caliphate attempted”, Current Trends in Islamist Ideology 7, July 21, 2008

[iv] Brian Fishman, “After Zarqawi: The Dilemmas and Future of Al Qaeda in Iraq”, The Washington Quarterly 29, no. 4, Autumn 2006

[v] Andrea Plebani, New (and Old) Petterns of Jihadism: al-Qa’ida, the Islamic State and Beyond (Milano: ISPI, 2014) p.8

[vi] Brian Fishman, Dysfunction and Decline: Lesson Learned from Inside Al Qa’ida in Iraq (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, March 16, 2009)

[vii] David Kilcullen, “Field Notes on Iraq’s Tribal Revolt Against Al-Qa‘ida”, CTC Sentinel 1, no. 11, October 2008

[viii] Andrea Plebani, New (and Old) Petterns of Jihadism: al-Qa’ida, the Islamic State and Beyond (Milano: ISPI, 2014) p.10

[ix] Ibi., p.7

[x] Emily Hunt, “Zarqawi’s ‘Total War’ on Iraqi Shiites Exposes a Divide Among Sunni Jihadists”, PolicyWatch 1049, Washington Institute [online], November 15, 2015,


[xii] Andrea Plebani, New (and Old) Petterns of Jihadism: al-Qa’ida, the Islamic State and Beyond (Milano: ISPI, 2014) p.23

[xiii] Aaron Zelin, “The War between IS and al-Qaeda for Supremacy of the Global Jihadist Movement”, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy Research Notes, no. 20, June 2014

[xiv] Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium

[xv] Christophe Reuter, “The Terror Strategist: Secret Files Reveal the Structure of Islamic State,” Der Spiegel, April 18, 2015, [accessed: November 29, 2015].

[xvi] Laith Alkhouri, Alex Kassirer, “Governing The Caliphate: The Islamic State Picture”, CTC Sentinel 8, no.8, August 21, 2015

[xvii] James Denselow, “Mosul, the Jazira Region and the Syrian-Iraqi Borderlands”, in An Iraq of its Regions. Cornerstones of a Federal Democracy?, eds. Reidar Visser and Garteh Stansfield (London: Hurst Publishers LTD, 2007) pp. 99-122

[xviii] Stephan Heissner, Peter R. Neumann, John Holland-McCowan and Rajan Basra, Caliphate in Decline: An Estimate of Islamic State’s Financial Fortunes (London: International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, 2017) pp.5-8

[xix] Stephen Wicken, Iraq’s Sunnis in Crisis, Middle East Security Report II (Washington: Institute for the Study of War, May 2013)

[xx] “Islamic State Territory Down 60 Percent and Revenue Down 80 Percent on Caliphate’s Third Anniversary, HIS Markit Says”, IHS Markit, June 29, 2017,

[xxi] Seth G. Jones et al., Rolling Back the Islamic State (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2017) p.20

[xxii] Stephan Heissner, Peter R. Neumann, John Holland-McCowan and Rajan Basra, Caliphate in Decline: An Estimate of Islamic State’s Financial Fortunes (London: International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, 2017) pp.7-8

[xxiii] Ibid., p.7

[xxiv] Andrea Plebani, After Mosul: Re-inventing Iraq, (Milano: ISPI, 2017) p.132

[xxv] Seth G. Jones et al., Rolling Back the Islamic State (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2017) pp.14, 32

[xxvi] Josie Ensor, “Isil ‘launches suicide attacks’ on Kurdish forces in Mosul as bloody battle to retake terror group’s Iraq stronghold begins” The Telegraph, October 17, 2016,; Tim Hume, “Battle for Mosul: How ISIS is fighting to keep its Iraqi stronghold” CNN, October 25, 2016,

[xxvii] Andrea Plebani, After Mosul: Re-inventing Iraq (Milano: ISPI, 2017) p.130

[xxix] “ISIS Video Shows Its Fighters Of Various Nationalities In Raqqa, Syria; Somali Fighter Threatens Trump Says ISIS ‘Will Slaughter You [Americans] In Your Own Houses’, Memri, July 31, 2017,

[xxx] In August 2013, the Iraqi Parliament approved amendments to Law 21 (also known as Provincial Powers Act) that increased the powers of provincial councils and governors. According to the law, local governments should choose their own judiciary and heads of security; provinces should have more control on and autonomy in the management of its financial resources; in areas of shared competency between local governments and the central government, in case of disagreement the decisions of the local government should prevail; the governorate should have responsibility for all state officials in its jurisdiction; within two years, control over housing, employment, education, health and finance should be transferred to local authorities.