By S. Binodkumar Singh*
The Taliban, a radically militant Islamic movement that controlled some 90 percent of Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, emerged from their base in Kandahar in southwestern Afghanistan in reaction to the lawlessness caused by infighting between rival mujahideen forces in the wake of the Soviet withdrawal and the civil war that ensued. Though Taliban made giant strides in uniting the country, ultimately it was unable to end the civil war wracking an already devastated country. The strongest opposition to Taliban came from the Northern Alliance (NA), who controlled a small pocket in the northeast region of Afghanistan, Panjshir. This group backed the United States-led coalition ousted Taliban from power in 2001 for harboring Al-Qaeda; a force that is yet to be defeated and weeded out of Afghanistan. With an estimated core of about 60,000 fighters, Taliban remains the most vigorous insurgent group in the country and holds sway over civilians, by force or otherwise, in areas that are its strongholds, especially in the south and east.
Though it appears to be highly unlikely for Taliban to oust the sitting Afghan government and revive its Emirate, it poses the most serious challenge to Kabul’s authority even as the United States that had initially decided on a draw-down is now resending military reinforcements to Afghanistan. Taliban continues to be a major security issue for the country, especially since the withdrawal of a large International Security Assistance Force (ISAF; a coalition of some 132,457) and the winding up of an overtly offensive mission (Enduring Freedom) has exposed the under-prepared and under-numbered Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) to challenges that are far more complex and difficult to handle. In these circumstances, for a country already shaken by terrorism, the increasing presence of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan is bound to appear nightmarish.
Reports of IS making inroads into Afghanistan had started emerging subsequent to the June 2014 release of IS’ ‘world domination map’, which included Afghanistan in the projected ‘Islamic region of Khorasan’. In fact, most of the IS militants which emerged in Afghanistan are members of the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban groups.
Amid deepening rift among Taliban leadership following Mullah Omar’s death confirmation, the IS group on August 4, 2015, claimed breakthrough in its efforts to gain a foothold in the country. A spokesman for the terror group in Khorasan Province claimed that pledges of allegiance to IS are taking place across the country. The IS-affiliate also claimed that the Taliban movement is over and said the dawn of the IS begins.
Startlingly, Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a British defense and security think tank, on February 5, 2016, revealed that there are around 7,000–8,500 Daesh members based on Afghan soil and 2,000–3,000 based in Pakistan. The figures are inclusive of all active Daesh members, both fighters and support elements from different sources including Daesh cadres themselves, Afghan security sources, Pakistani security sources and Iranian security sources.
The loyalists of IS group have been using the recruitment tactics of Taliban in Afghanistan, but their way of execution is more horrible than Taliban. In fact, IS supporters have proved ruthless, reportedly beheading several Taliban fighters. The IS affiliates have also persecuted Hazaras and Shias in Afghanistan.
Remarkably, in the first major attack claimed by the IS and the first-ever IS suicide attack in Afghanistan, on April 18, 2015, 35 people were killed and more than 100 others were injured in a bomb blast in Jalalabad city of Nangahar Province. Aiming to gain a foothold in Afghanistan, the IS loyalists on September 9, 2015, vowed to eliminate the Durand Line, the 2,250 kilometer long border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, in a bid to unite and pave the way for the Muslims divided by the line.
In fact, Nangarhar Province has become a hot spot for the newly emerged group of terrorists. The group has been operating in at least seven Districts of this Province. United Nations Al-Qaida Monitoring Team’s report released on September 25, 2015, said “Sightings of the groups with some form of ISIL branding or sympathy were reported in 25 of Afghanistan’s 34 Provinces.” Disturbingly, the IS group is now focusing on brainwashing the youths and indoctrinate them with radical ideologies.
Recently, the loyalists of IS terrorist group have launched a radio station, Voice of the Caliphate in eastern Nangarhar Province with an aim to encourage local youth to enroll in jihadi ranks and airing anti-Government Islamic rulings or fatwa using a broadcast band of 90 FM. In addition to Pashto broadcasts, IS group has started airing programmes in Dari language in eastern Nangarhar Province.
Further, Voice of America on January 21, 2016, reported the expansion of the IS group in Ghazni Province as the group has been busy in its campaign in Ghazni Province’s restive areas including Zana Khan, Giro, Andar and Gilan Districts. Militants wearing black clothes have been seen in these areas urging locals to join Daesh. They have also distributed night letters as part of their campaign.
Both Taliban and IS group oppose each other. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of IS has called Taliban leader Mullah Omar “a fool and illiterate warlord” saying that Mullah Omar does not deserve a spiritual or political credibility. While on the other hand Taliban fighters have been ordered by their leaders not to let Daesh flag raise in Afghanistan. Both Taliban and Daesh have officially declared Jihad (Holy War) against one another.
To combat rival IS group, Taliban has formed Special Forces called “Reserve Units”. The two groups have engaged in a number of skirmishes in recent months as IS looks to expand its influence to Afghanistan. Splendidly, calling on the Government to take immediate actions to tackle the activities of the militant groups, local tribal elders and political leaders representing eastern Provinces of Nangarhar, Kunar, Nuristan and Laghman during a gathering in capital Kabul on September 6, 2015, warned the Government regarding the deteriorating security situation in eastern Provinces.
IS’ entry into Afghanistan has prompted comparisons with Taliban. Both are Sunni insurgent groups with an obscurantist outlook and use barbaric methods, including beheading against their enemies. Both maintain armies, have governance structures and focus on holding territory. However, sharp differences separate them. IS is a Salafi group, with a global jihadi agenda, whose thought “Caliphate” includes Muslim countries as well as countries in Europe that were once under Muslim rule. Its members are well-educated and while they are mostly Arab, several thousand Muslim jihadists from Western countries have joined. In contrast, Taliban’s ambitions are not global but more locally focused, that is to set up a “pure and clean Islamic state in Afghanistan.” It is largely a Wahhabi group, whose leaders and foot soldiers alike are Afghan, Pashtun, rural and poorly educated. And unlike the Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict that drives IS, the Taliban insurgency emerged in the context of a largely ethnic conflict but has now focused for over a decade on fighting the U.S.-led coalition forces and the Afghan Government.
To add to all of the above, there is reason to believe the brutal methods of IS are too extreme even for Taliban. So, for now, the prospect of an IS takeover or even substantial presence in Afghanistan is far from becoming reality. Amid concerns that the loyalists of IS group are gaining foothold in Afghanistan, Nicholas Haysom, who once served as the UN Secretary-General’s deputy special representative in Afghanistan in an interview on December 29, 2015, said “At the moment ISIS is not the most significant aspect of the security threat facing Afghanistan and its presence is relatively limited. In my view, I’ve seen reports that they are widely spread, I think they are exaggerated and scaremongering”.
In the first known military operation undertaken against the IS in Afghanistan, Abdul Rauf Khadem, the founder of the Afghan branch of IS was killed by a drone strike along with five of his companions in Helmand Province on February 9, 2015. Following the killing of Mullah Abdul Rauf, his nephew Hafiz Wahidi took over the command for IS who was also killed along with nine of his companions in Helmand Province on March 16, 2015 during an Afghan National Army (ANA) operation. Further, on July 11, 2015, IS’ leader in Afghanistan and Pakistan Hafiz Saeed was killed along with 30 other insurgents in a U.S. drone strike on their compound in the Achin District of Nangarhar Province.
Ordering the Ministry of Defense (MoD) to continue bombing the fanatics of the IS, President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani during his speech at a gathering organized in Jalalabad city of Nangahar Province, on January 10, 2016, said “Daesh does not have room in our territory. We want them killed.” Urging the Government to immediately block signals of radio operated by the IS group in eastern Nangarhar Province, the lawmakers in Meshrano Jirga (Upper House of Parliament) on December 22, 2015, said that Government needs to take all measures against the radio even if it needs to get assistance of the regional countries.
Astonishingly, extending sanctions against Taliban for 18 months in a resolution on December 21, 2015, the U.N. Security Council warned of the increasing presence of affiliates of the IS group in Afghanistan. Outstandingly, Russia, in a bid to exchange information with the Taliban group in fight against IS group in Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy on Afghanistan on December 23, 2015, said “We have communication channels opened for sharing information.” Elsewhere, the United States on January 14, 2016, designated the Khorasan branch of the IS as a terrorist organization.
To quell the IS loyalists as they were rapidly gaining foothold in different parts of the country, acting Afghan Defense Minister, Masoom Stanikzai, on January 7, 2016, announced that a new special force has been formed to counter the insurgency and threats posed by the terror group. On January 16, 2016, nearly one thousand militiamen led by Deputy House Speaker Zahir Qadir were placed under the ANSF control in a bid to re-organize them. Finally, President Ashraf Ghani at a meeting with the US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter during his two-day state visit in Switzerland on January 23, 2016, said that the counter-terrorism operations to IS terrorist group are successfully and effectively being conducted in Nangarhar Province.
IS’ entry into Afghanistan is complicating the already complex conflict in the country. The main casualty of the IS-Taliban rivalry will likely be the ongoing peace process. Moreover, Taliban leaders who may be considering engaging in talks will now think twice before heading to the negotiation table as Taliban fighters and leaders who are opposed to talks with the Government could defect to IS. In addition, a sharp increase in violence in the strife-torn country can be expected as Taliban and the IS battle for Afghan hearts, minds and territory. With civilian casualties mounting and a mounting economic crisis, Afghanistan is facing some very real and daunting challenges. Afghanistan will continue to need the support of the international community.
*Dr. Binodkumar Singh is a Research Associate at Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi. He can be reached at: [email protected]