Why are US-trained Afghans now joining IS-K?

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The end result is the same, and it’s that America’s regional image problem has just worsened

The Wall Street Journal reported that US-trained Afghans are joining the self-described “Islamic State’s” Khorosan (IS-K) franchise in that country. This further compounds America’s regional image problems that were recently exacerbated by its panicked evacuation from Afghanistan in late August following the Taliban’s takeover. It’s curious to observe how these US-trained forces barely put up a fight against that group at the time yet are now joining the world’s most infamous terrorist organization in order to continue the war. This will certainly give rise to speculation about what’s really going on there and the extent to which the US supports it.

As it stands, the US’ regional image is in tatters. Not only did it lose its nearly two-decade-long war in Afghanistan, but it withdrew in the most humiliating way possible after being chased out by the Taliban. Furthermore, it abandoned many of its Afghan allies and even some of its own citizens who remained trapped in the war-torn country after the Western coalition completed its withdrawal. It’s difficult to imagine that one would still trust America after all that happened. Now its regional image problems are worsened by some of the forces that it formerly trained joining IS-K to fight against the Taliban.

On the domestic front, the Republicans are expected to use this development to score political points against the Democrats ahead of next year’s midterms. They already had more than enough narrative ammunition even before this, but the optics of US-trained forces joining IS-K after Biden’s embarrassing withdrawal will likely prove too tempting for them to pass up. It should be remembered that then-presidential candidate Donald Trump and his team talked during the 2016 campaign about how former President Barack Obama emboldened ISIS in Syria and Iraq. The eventual Republican candidate in 2024 will likely say the same about Biden with IS-K.

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The political impact will remain to be seen but could prove to be tremendous in terms of reducing the incumbent’s already sagging approval rating that’s ignominiously the worst of any president at this time in their term since World War II. The more that domestic forces talk about this scandal, the more credibility that it’ll gain on the international stage. America’s rivals are thus expected to build upon that development to deal a heavy blow to that country’s tattered regional reputation. All of this might mean that its reputation will remain terrible in this part of the world for years to come.

Speculation was already rife for years that the US was secretly supporting IS-K. In fact, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova shared her country’s concerns in this respect in late July, which expanded upon prior claims from Russian officials to this effect. The Kremlin can thus be expected to remind the international community about its earlier warnings in light of this development in order to simultaneously vindicate itself while also further eroding the US’ regional reputation. In the eyes of many, Russia might continue to be seen as much more reliable of a regional stakeholder than the US after what the Wall Street Journal just reported.

The “politically inconvenient” truth is that the US has indeed at the very least indirectly supported IS-K due to the fact that some of the Afghan forces that it trained ended up joining that terrorist group. It doesn’t matter at this point whether such an outcome was planned in advance like some of that country’s critics cynically speculate or whether it was just another example of unintentional blowback. The end result is the same, and it’s that America’s regional image problem has just worsened. As the Republicans predictably pick up on this scandal and the US’ rivals gleefully focus on it too, the country’s reputation might never fully recover.

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