Divided ISIS still threatens Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan — Over the last 14 years, Afghanistan has made remarkable progress in several areas. Above 23 million of the 30 million nationals have coverage, some 8 million students are enrolled in schools, well above one third of which are girls, 28 percent of parliamentarians are women, the country has an army and police personnel of about 400,000 officers, the national cricket team recently competed for the first time in the world cup, and the male and female football teams have made substantial progress in competing regionally and internationally. However, insecurity, corruption, lawlessness, and service delivery remain the biggest problems in the country. Additionally, Afghanistan is currently dealing with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

The first  ISIS brochures appeared near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in September 2014. Earlier this year though, the militant group announced on ‘Dabiq,’ its official magazine, that it took over the Khurasan province, a middle-eastern region which historically comprised parts of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. 

photo credit: washingtonpost.com

photo credit: washingtonpost.com

It is the desire for political legitimacy and the accessibility to more resources that brings ISIS closer to the Indian Ocean and the Oxus River. Also, access to Afghanistan’s illicit drug economy is a soft target, which can fund ISIS’s military operations. Russia’s intelligence agency has said that ISIS could gain up to $1 billion annually from the Afghan drug economy.

What also gives ISIS the momentum is the divide in the Taliban. Some Taliban who have joined ISIS claimed that their party was moving in the wrong direction on several fronts.

While some claimed that the Taliban were becoming the puppets of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), others used the reconciliation process as an excuse, favoring no talks but continuing the fight under a different flag, and some just joined for the purpose of publicity and rebranding.

No one knows the precise number of ISIS operatives in the county, but estimates vary from 1,000 to 10,000. An Afghan prosecutor who deals with the sophisticated cases of the held terrorists told Global Young Voices that “the number could be in thousands,” and that operatives are supported by the intelligence agencies of the neighboring countries.”

The ISIS operatives come from different parts of the globe, and of course with the recruitment, some local Afghans have also joined the group. Prominent members come from Central Asia, such as Turkmenistan (the East Turkmenistan Movement members, who have pledged allegiance to ISIS), and from Pakistan.

Afghan Vice President, General Dostum, who led a military operation against the Taliban and ISIS in northern Afghanistan, said that Pakistani generals were leading the insurgents in the area.

Noorrahman Rahmani, country director of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, told Global Young Voices: “ISIS is the creation of neighboring countries and is a substitute to the Taliban.”

Mohammad Bahir, an Afghan analyst who comes from the border area in the East where ISIS forces were initially spotted, said that the “majority of Daesh [ISIS] fighters are from the Orakzai Agency of Pakistan, where Hafiz Saeed Khan belongs. It’s certain now that the ultra-extremist Taliban members who are against the peace process and believe in a military solution have joined ISIS in Afghanistan.”

The notion that ISIS is a substitute for the Taliban in Afghanistan may be seriously flawed. Both ISIS and the Taliban share some common interests, such as waging jihad against the “westerners and their puppets,” as well as sharing brutal characteristics, like beheadings. But the Taliban’s core does not like the presence of ISIS in Afghanistan, at least not now.

There have been clashes between the loyalists of the two groups, where several militants have died. The Taliban do not want a parallel jihadi structure in the country and do not accept Baghdadi as their Emir. The Taliban’s new leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, wrote to ISIS to “stay out of Afghanistan.”

ISIS has also created a challenge for the Taliban. “In Nangarhar province, ISIS has managed to push back the Taliban and gain (partial) control of at least seven of Nangarhar’s 21 districts,” Bahir said.

Amid all the chaos, it’s the Afghan civilians who have suffered the most. Nader Nadery, the head of Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, an independent think tank, wrote: “The presence of Islamic State, or ISIS, in Afghanistan continues to grow.” According to Nadery, the political fragmentation in the Afghan government political elite is “conducive for the growth of ISIS and other radical groups.” Nadery also said that the escalation of violence in the country has caused more civilian casualties.

Rahmani confirmed Nadery’s viewpoint, saying: “ordinary Afghans who live in these areas, are affected by them [ISIS] and their brutal actions.”

A militant islamist fighter. PHOTO CREDIT: BBC.CO.UK

A militant islamist fighter. PHOTO CREDIT: BBC.CO.UK

There is hope that ISIS will not succeed in Afghanistan but could still create security problems for the country and beyond. Rahmani said that “ISIS will not be as successful as it is in the Arab world because most of the things they do contradict the Afghan culture, local traditions and the Afghan way of following Islam.”

Rahmani added that ISIS “can still pose a threat to Afghanistan in the areas that border Pakistan, and from there they pose a threat to the Central Asian countries.”

ISIS can take advantage of the political and economic frailty in the country. For years, the insurgency has been a source of job creation and economic gains for a portion of the population in the region.

The intelligence agencies of the regional countries have also used this opportunity to expand their sphere of influence and pursue proxy wars – this has been at the disadvantage of everyone – it has hampered economic growth, left a population uneducated, prevented the improvement of the quality of life and above all killed hundreds of thousands.

Today, ISIS is a real threat, not only for the security of Afghanistan but also for the security of the whole region. If the Afghan and international stakeholders, including the U.S., Russia, India, Iran, China and Pakistan, do not take collective civil-military action against ISIS, Afghanistan and the region might face another chronic insurgency.

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cartoon credit: cartoonmovement.com