BACKGROUND: Since September last year, Afghan and international media have been reporting about black flag-carrying Islamic State (IS) fighters in Afghanistan’s southern provinces and the defection of Taliban fighters to IS. A propaganda video released in early January, for instance, showed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Afghan Taliban fighters pledging loyalty to IS Chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. A few days later, IS formally proclaimed its arrival in the region. Its spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani announced a shura (governing council) for its “Khorasan Province,” an old name for what is today Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan, and declared TTP commander Hafez Saeed Khan and former Guantanamo Bay detainee and senior Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim as the Khorasan Province’s “governor” and “deputy governor,” respectively. However, within days of this announcement, the ambitions of IS in Afghanistan suffered a setback with Khadim being killed in a drone strike in Helmand. He was IS’ chief recruiter in Afghanistan.
Opinions are divided over the magnitude of the IS presence in Afghanistan. While some insist that IS activity here is at a “nascent” stage only, others claim it has made “deadly inroads” into this war-ravaged country with around 10,000 fighters reportedly joining its training camps there. Recently, a top U.N. official in Afghanistan, Nicholas Haysom, said IS had put down “firm roots” in the country.
IS’ entry into Afghanistan has prompted comparisons with the 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. Sharp differences separate them, however. 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, the Taliban’s ambitions are not global but more locally focused, i.e. to set up a “pure and clean Islamic state in Afghanistan.” It is largely a Hanafi 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.
IMPLICATIONS: What is the future of IS in Afghanistan? Will it collaborate with the Taliban or is a turf war in the cards? And what impact will its entry into Afghanistan have on the ongoing conflict there? The most valuable advantage that IS possesses to attract Afghans to join its ranks is its “brand,” which has been boosted substantially by its spectacular battlefield successes in Iraq, Syria and North Africa as well as its self-professed establishment of an “Islamic Caliphate”’ While the IS’ jihad may not be attractive to Afghans in itself, disgruntled elements among the Taliban may decide to defect, impressed by the achievements of IS. Such defections could increase especially when funds begin pouring into IS’ “Khorasan unit.”
The spectacular rise of IS in Iraq, Syria, Libya and elsewhere has triggered expectations of similar growth in Afghanistan. However, its future in the country will likely be less smooth as it can expect a fierce challenge from the Taliban. The IS-Taliban relationship in Afghanistan will be adversarial not only because their composition, ideologies and goals are different – differences exist between the Taliban and the al-Qaeda too and yet the two worked together – but also, neither side is open to subordination to the other. In Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, IS collaborates with local groups on the condition that they work under its leadership. However, this is unlikely to happen in Afghanistan as Afghans in general and the Taliban in particular are averse to operating with foreigners, much less under them. Even the Taliban’s much-discussed cooperation with the Arab-dominated al-Qaeda was not free from tension. Still, some level of collaboration was possible because al-Qaeda’s leader Osama bin Laden pledged allegiance to Taliban leader Mullah Omar. He and his successor Ayman al-Zawahiri accepted Omar as the Amir-ul-Momineen (Leader of the Faithful).
Baghdadi reportedly looks down on Mullah Omar and will unlikely play the second fiddle to a person he considers “an ignorant, illiterate warlord, unworthy of spiritual or political respect.” In June 2014, when IS declared an Islamic Caliphate, Baghdadi assumed the title “Caliph Ibrahim” underscoring not only his leadership of the world’s Muslims, but also challenging Mullah Omar’s claim to that title. Importantly, when IS announced its expansion into the “Khorasan Province,” it avoided mentioning the Taliban by name but called on “soldiers of the Islamic State in Khorasan” to prepare for violent conflict with the “factions” there, making clear that conflict rather than co-operation or collaboration will define its relationship with the Taliban in Afghanistan. A bloody conflict looms in Afghanistan. While much of the bloodletting take place between Taliban and IS fighters, heightened competition will also see them seek to outdo each other through spectacular attacks also on other targets.
CONCLUSIONS: IS’ entry into Afghanistan will complicate the already complex conflict in the country. The main casualty of the IS-Taliban rivalry will likely be the ongoing peace process. Taliban leaders who may be considering engaging in talks will now think twice before heading to the negotiation table out of fear of being labeled traitors by IS. Taliban fighters and leaders who are opposed to talks with the Afghan government could defect to IS.
Its rapid expansion in other countries notwithstanding, the future of IS in Afghanistan is not as bright. Setting up a wing in Afghanistan is one thing, seeing it emerge as a dominant force in a land thousands of miles from its core stronghold is another. It may have overestimated its capacity in announcing its entry into Afghanistan, although its future in Pakistan may be brighter.
Image Attribution: Tunimag