The threat of ISIS in Afghanistan: Continuing Blame game and the Afghan Peace Process

An Islamic State fighter, second from right, speaking to a journalist after surrendering in Jowzjan Province, in northern Afghanistan, on Wednesday.CreditCreditAssociated Press

 

Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra, Lecturer in Political Science, S.V.M. Autonomous College, Odisha, India. Previously worked as the Programme Coordinator, School of International Studies, Ravenshaw University, Odisha, India.

While Lt. Col. Martin O’Donnell – a spokesperson of US forces in Afghanistan and the officials of the Afghan government alike have confirmed that the head of the ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan also known as ISIS-Khorasan or Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), Abu Sayeed Orakzai has been killed in US counter-terrorism offensive, ISIS still poses a credible threat to Afghan civilians and their desire for peace and to the security of foreign nationals as evident from recent high-profile terror attacks conducted by the group apart from other attacks finding lesser global media coverage. The killings of ISIS leaders by the US strikes such as Abu Sayed in July 2017, Abdul Hasib and Hafiz Sayed Khan in 2016 have done little to diminish the strength of the radical group before. It is perturbing that ISIS has been able to launch massive terror strikes in Afghanistan and still escape and bounce back notwithstanding multi-front challenges to its existence from US counter-terrorism operations to operations by Afghan security forces onto a formidable challenge from the Afghan Taliban.

The terror attacks carried out by ISIS pointed to the fact that the radical group can only remain relevant to its objectives as long as instability and lawlessness envelop Afghanistan. A car bomb attack on a gathering of the Taliban and Afghan forces united to celebrate Eid ceasefire (June 15-17) which claimed at least 26 lives and left several others wounded in the eastern province of Nangarhar was carried out by ISIS with the plain intention of sabotaging Afghan peace. The terror attack of July 1, 2018, in the Afghan city of Jalalabad which reportedly killed 19 people including 17 persons from Sikh and Hindu communities were preceded by cases of similar kinds of suicide attacks undertaken by the group in the city. Another attack by the radical group on August 15, 2018, which resulted in the death of around 48 young people among which 34 were students preparing for university entrance exams and left about 60 civilians suffering from serious injuries was deliberately targeted at the young masses belonging to the Shiite minority sect. These attacks not only signaled how deadly the group is for the religious minority communities, but the timing of the attacks also suggested that ISIS was against the growing Afghan peace process following the successful Eid ceasefire. Earlier in April 2018, ISIS had already indicated its intention to sabotage Afghan desire for peace and democracy by launching successive terror attacks in which not only ten journalists were killed, many children and several civilians had to lose their lives. These attacks were preceded by more brutal attacks in the same month which resulted in the killing of around 60 civilians who lined up to register to vote for the upcoming elections. While the attacks on the journalists indicated the radical group’s distaste for freedom of speech and expression, attacks on the voting registration centre carried the grist of their hatred for democracy in general.

It is germane to note that the attacks were launched by the group when the peace process was gathering momentum with both the Taliban and the Afghan government expressing their willingness to move ahead with the reconciliation process although both diverged on the modus-operandi. While both observed Eid ceasefire in June, the Taliban declined to negotiate with the Afghan government once the truce ended and insisted on direct talks with the US. The Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, however, continued with his peace and reconciliation offers to the militant group. The initial peace process was followed by the reports of the Taliban’s meeting with the US officials in mid-July and the 5-day visit of a Taliban delegation to Uzbekistan during August 6-10 to continue the peace talks. The offensive attacks by ISIS during this time-frame pointed to the fact that continuing instability in Afghanistan would fall squarely with the interests of ISIS. The genesis and strength of the group in Syria and Iraq were byproducts of the anarchy that prevailed in these states.

In Afghanistan, ISIS began to gain a foothold only when divisions within the Taliban group became palpable. The unity of the Taliban was sabotaged by leadership struggles closely following on the heels of the public announcement of the demise of Mullah Omar – the supreme head of the militant group by the Afghan government on July 29, 2015. Though Omar died in Pakistan in April 2013, Islamabad kept this as a secret for two years to maintain the fiction that the movement was united and was under its control. This also helped Islamabad prop up the new leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour (who was eventually killed in May 2016 by an American air strike in Balochistan while he was allegedly returning from Iran) on its soil by appointing him by a shura outside Afghanistan and pursue American sponsored peace talks with the Afghan government with the Chinese assistance. Islamabad was aware of the increased factions within the Taliban movement and its reduced clout over these groups (“Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mansour ‘open to talks’,” BBC News, 22 September 2015, available at http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-34322125). Mansour did not command enough support within the movement and was seriously challenged by other prominent leaders of the movement. Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, another deputy of Mullah Omar who commanded the largest insurgent front inside Afghanistan, as opposed to peace talks and remained committed to continuing the armed struggle against the Afghan government (H. Byrne et al.; “The death of Mullah Omar and the rise of ISIS in Afghanistan,” Backgrounder, ISW, August 17, 2015, available at http://understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/Mullah%20Omar%20Backgrounder.pdf). Mullah Yaqoob, son of late Mullah Omar, was another claimant of leadership and reserved the support of many of his father’s supporters. Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani group, was believed not to be subservient to any of the factions of the Taliban and continued autonomous military operations. Many severe attacks on the NATO and Afghan forces were conducted by this group even while the peace process was going on to prove their strength.

ISIS began exploiting the differences between the Taliban factions in order spread its sway into Afghanistan and fill up the resultant power vacuum (Mubaraz Ahmed, “The death of Mullah Omar could help ISIS in Afghanistan,” Newsweek, July 31, 2015, Available at http://www.newsweek.com/death-mullah-omar-could-help-isis-afghanistan-358809). With the prior knowledge of Mullah Omar’s death, ISIS could reportedly persuade five senior Tehrik-I Taliban Pakistan (TTP) officials, a faction of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and various Taliban fighters to shift their allegiance. ISIS dubbed the Afghan government as a “puppet government” and accused the Taliban of being directed by the intelligence agency (ISI) of Pakistan. It was believed that many hard-line Taliban members would like to join ISIS to continue jihad rather than being driven by confused directives from the Taliban leadership. The Pakistani army’s fight against the TTP carried the possibilities that the militants would join ISIS. An American air strike reportedly killed the Pakistani Taliban leader Mullah Fazlullah in June 2018, but that made the group more vulnerable to ISIS.  ISIS allegedly called on the Muslim Uighur separatists in Xinjiang to join it for Jihad. There are reportedly around 5000 ethnic Uighurs belonging to the Muslim minority community of the Xinjiang province who joined the ISIS in Syria. Beijing seems to be alarmed at the possibility that ISIS might be able to recruit many Uighurs in Afghanistan.

Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran shared a view that ISIS has an enhanced presence in Afghanistan with around 10,000 fighters – along with rising potential to grow- spread across eight to nine provinces including its sway in the eastern provinces of Nangarhar, Kunar and Nuristan along the Pakistani border and in the northern province of Jowzjan which shares a border with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan carrying a dangerous portent for the Central Asian states. A piece in Guardian newspaper projected that ISIS in Afghanistan (ISKP) had been strengthened by Taliban defectors, a fighter from Iraq and Syria, militants from Sudan, Chechnya, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. Its funding was allegedly sourced from private donors, Arab Gulf states, and informal local taxes. Russia not only justified its military overture to Pakistan on the ground that military cooperation was necessary to fight the threat of ISIS, but there were also a series of trilateral meetings between Pakistan, Russia, and China primarily aimed at combating the ISIS threat. In one of the tripartite meetings in Moscow they agreed to remove specific Taliban figures from the US sanctions list followed by Islamabad’s hosting a meeting of heads of intelligence agencies from Russia, China, and Iran to beef up counter-terrorism efforts aimed at the threat posed by ISIS. These countries are allegedly not only working towards propping up the Taliban as a political stakeholder but as a hedge against looming of the danger of ISIS with the provision of arms, aid, and training. They believe that the threat of ISIS is likely to escalate from Afghanistan to their territories if not contained.

While these countries maintained that the ranks of ISIS continued to swell with foreign fighters escaping from Syria, Iraq, and members from Central Asian countries, the US statistics disputed the inflated number and inflow of foreign fighters into the group. The US along with the Afghan government continued to maintain that the influence of ISIS in Afghanistan was limited to provinces like Nangarhar and Kunar in the east and Jowzjan in north of Afghanistan and argued that the group consisted of only local defectors from other militant groups and the number varied from 1500 to 2000 which led to increasing coordination between Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran on Afghan security issues alleging that the US pursued shared interests with ISIS in keeping Afghanistan embroiled in instabilities and disorder so that it could have a permanent military presence in the region. At the same time, the US has been alleging that these countries are pushing their regional agenda by intentionally inflating the size and appearance of ISIS while they kept on strengthening the Taliban to bog down the US war and peace efforts in Afghanistan. While there are elements of truth in these allegations and counter-allegations, the worst victim to the blame game has been the Afghan peace process.

Any Afghan peace effort can be ensured only when the radical ambitions of the Taliban and ISIS are curtailed. It is fresh in memory that the Taliban made a volte-face on its earlier peace efforts and escalated violence in Ghazni province of Afghanistan. While the presence of ISIS may not be as significant as Moscow and other like-minded countries have believed it to be, its existence and strength are not as limited as the US and Afghan officials have so far argued. Many estimates suggest the number of the ISIS fighters varying between 3000 and 5000 although estimation near exact numbers is bound to be elusive. ISIS has proved its strength by launching some of the most offensive attacks in recent months in Afghanistan.

What contributes to a far worse scenario in Afghanistan are the methods of torture adopted and the objectives pursued by ISIS which are far more dreadful and transnational than the objectives pursued by other militant groups in Kabul. It not only targeted at the Afghan government officials and foreign nationals considering them ‘apostates,’ it indiscriminately targeted at civilians who they believed to be ‘heretics’ primarily religious minority communities in Afghanistan. In May 2018, ISIS launched attacks on Afghan Interior Ministry apart from the attacks on the Finance Department while the Education Department was attacked twice in July 2018.

ISIS has resorted to the ruthless methods of torture such as beheadings and forcing the victims to sit on explosives with recorded clippings to arouse fear among other actors within Afghanistan including foreign nationals and civilians of religious minority communities. Aside from this, terrorizing women by resorting to rape and abduction has contributed no less to the Afghan fear and anguish.

The differences in perceptions and roles of different stakeholders in Afghanistan are apparent with the American and Afghan government’s rejection of Russian invitation to participate in the Russia-led peace efforts earlier scheduled to be hosted by Moscow on September 4, 2018.  There are reports that the Russian leadership has announced to postpone the date to facilitate the participation of the Afghan government in the peace process. Meanwhile, the Russian Foreign Ministry stated that the American rejection showed Washington was not interested in launching a peace process in Afghanistan and Moscow also rejected the Afghan ambassador to Russia – Abdul Qayyum Kochai’s claim that Russia aimed use the Taliban to fight against ISIS. Much like the Afghan war, the peace process is gradually becoming evasive and has placed several state actors and Afghan people in a quandary with the hydra-headed ISIS adding complexity to the Afghan quagmire.

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