Afghanistan Changing Dynamics
The IS is gradually finding ground in Afghanistan, much to the consternation of the Taliban.
The IS has reached this part of the world.
As the Iraq and Syria-based Islamic State (IS) is gradually entrenching itself in war-torn Afghanistan, it is entering into turf rivalry with the largest insurgent Afghan group, the Afghan Taliban, resulting in bloody clashes. The animosity is significantly changing the dynamics of the war theatre in Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban have been waging an insurgency against the International Security & Assistance Force (ISAF) and the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) since the former’s occupation of Afghanistan in November 2001, when it dislodged the Afghan Taliban rule (1996-2001). The IS which emerged in Iraq in mid 2014 by adopting the nomenclature ‘Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)’ after declaring establishment of a ‘global caliphate’ on the territories it got hold of through its swashbuckling offensive in both the Middle Eastern countries, assumed the title of ‘IS’ and vowed to extend its branches to the entire Muslim world. Behind The Rivalry The IS has been especially working on having a strong network and franchise in
Afghanistan region because of many attractions it offers to insurgent and terrorist outfits. The foremost attraction of the Af-Pak region for the IS or any other Middle Eastern group is the huge population of Muslims, particularly young males which provides the most potential recruiting grounds for fighters. Secondly, the PakistanAfghanistan region also provides arguably the biggest sanctuaries due to extremely rugged terrain. The region hosted the Al Qaeda, another Middle Eastern globalized militant organization, for decades. Osama bin Laden led the Al Qaeda leadership and is said to have planned and executed the September 9/11 attacks on the US mainland.
As the Afghan Taliban have been fighting for restoration of their rule labeled as the ‘war of national liberation’ by the group against the ‘anti-Islamic’ forces and their local agents, their agenda has largely been local, which is in direct clash with the stateless and global schema of the IS. Both the terror groups declared war on one another in April this year after the Afghan Taliban dubbed the IS selfdeclared ‘Caliphate’ as illegitimate and refused to declare allegiance to the IS founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, also the self-appointed Amir-ulMomineen ( (LeaderLeader of all faithful or Muslims). Noticeably, Mullah Omar, the founder and head of the Afghan Taliban, also chose for himself the title of Amir-ul-Momineen way back in 1996, when the group had captured power in Afghanistan; but he, nor any of the leading lights of his movement, ever vowed to launch regional or global militancy. Thus there has been an inherent contradiction in the words and agenda of the Afghan Taliban. Nevertheless, the Taliban hosted many Islamist militant groups from across the world during their rule, whether it was the Al Qaeda, Abu Sayyaf of Philippines or the East Turkistan Islamic Movement of Uighurs from China.
The IS in response to the Afghan Taliban declaration of their caliphate as having no Islamic grounds launched recruitment drives deep into the Taliban territory, allowing them to expand rapidly - even reportedly replacing the Taliban as the dominant controlling force in several districts of Nangarhar province. It is important to note that the IS has been able to entrench itself relatively in some provinces of Afghanistan because of switching of several Afghan Taliban commanders as well as of many Pakistani Taliban commanders present in Afghanistan. Seemingly the Afghan Taliban commanders who joined the IS got disenchanted with the localized agenda of their former group. In the latest clashes between the Afghan Taliban and the IS fighters, 10 Afghan Taliban were captured by the IS fighters in Afghanistan and were beheaded. The incident took place in Nangarhar province of Afghanistan which borders Pakistan’s volatile Khyber tribal district in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The beheadings were aimed at heralding the presence and strength of the IS in Afghanistan as well as to get a very strong message across to the Afghan Taliban that the IS meant business. Forces Behind IS Rise Certain independent international media outlets have informed through their sources in Afghanistan that the Afghan National Directorate of Intelligence has been behind the steady rise of the IS in the country. The reason which these media furnished for the Afghan intelligence support to the IS is to prop the latter as a counterforce to the Afghan Taliban. Afghan intelligence support to the IS in Afghanistan is partially plausible. Because the Afghan intelligence would be anticipating that the strengthening and apparent power of the IS in Afghanistan could create schisms in the Afghan Taliban as many commanders and ordinary fighters of the latter would like to join the IS. This would weaken the Taliban. There has rarely been any major fissures and factionalism in the Afghan Taliban movement since its emergence in 1994 despite bad times.
As the IS has an equally strong, if not stronger, Islamist agenda like the Afghan Taliban have, the Afghan intelligence would be expecting that such Islamist credentials could push many Afghan Taliban towards the IS at a time when the latter have failed to get concrete results despite their territorial gains. The Afghan intelligence, by supporting the IS, would also expect that the group could create extensive problems for Pakistan, especially when the Pakistani Taliban movement or the Tehreek-eTaliban Pakistan is facing factionalism and the worst time of its existence and many of their commanders would like to join the IS.
This is a realistic expectation as the Pakistani Taliban, unlike the Afghan Taliban have on several occasions vowed to wage ‘global Jihad.’ The Afghan intelligence support to the IS must be based on the estimates of its sleuths that the IS could not become a threat to Afghanistan, therefore, it could be used as a tool. However, intelligence agencies engineering often result in catastrophes for their own countries. Therefore, the Afghan intelligence agencies must not play with fire and should learn from Pakistan which under General Ziaul-Haq invested on Muslim militants to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan in the expectation that it would have no effect on Pakistan. But even to this very day, Pakistan cannot get itself shielded from the ill-effects of that strategy. Panic Among Taliban On their part, the Afghan Taliban seem to have panicked by the gradual rise of the IS in their heartland. Knowing that once the IS gets itself entrenched, it would pounce on the Taliban. The sudden decision by the Afghan Taliban to enter into direct peace talks with the Afghan Taliban for the first time ever and the holding of the first round of this process in Murree is obviously, although partially, the result of the Taliban fears due to the rise of the IS in Afghanistan. The Taliban have been refusing to hold talks with the US or Afghan government unless the entire west-created constitutional and political edifice in Afghanistan is rolled back. The first round of talks between the two sides remained inconclusive; however, the Murree meeting set the tone and tenor of the peace negotiations. Thus the presence of IS and its gaining gradual ground has forced the Taliban to come to the negotiating table. However, nothing seemed to be said with certainty regarding the outcome of the talks between the Afghan Taliban and President Ghani’s government. The second meeting of the process would keep monitoring these developments. All this points to the fact that the peace process in Afghanistan has entered a decisive phase. The writer holds a PhD in International Relations and is a political and security analyst.