Towards the end of June 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with former Afghan President Hamid Karzai in the Kremlin. The Kremlin handout of the meeting quotes Putin as saying that “the so-called Islamic State is getting increasingly active in Afghanistan, consolidating its position there. I believe we are already seeing the Islamic State’s presence in 25 out of the 34 provinces.” Hamid Karzai on his part responded to Putin’s remarks by stating that the Islamic State (IS) was not a homegrown phenomenon and that it was being supported by ‘external forces’.
Both President Putin’s remarks about the IS having a presence in Afghanistan and Karzai’s response requires a bit of elaboration and analysis. Security agencies in both Afghanistan and Pakistan are aware of the spreading tentacles of IS. Karzai was echoing Iran’s sentiment when he used the term ‘external forces’. By this he probably pointed a finger at the US. On the other hand, it is known that IS in Afghanistan is an extension of the various breakaway factions of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), many of whom have pledged their allegiance to the IS.
Pak intelligence is aware that Jundullah an early TTP adherent is now an IS follower. Jundullah announced its backing for IS in November 2014 after meeting took place between Jundullah and a three-man delegation representing IS led by al Zubair al Kuwaiti. Essentially, IS has been able to attract sectarian groups within Pakistan, like the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.
In January 2015, the IS announced the expansion of its presence to the Khorasan region, encompassing Afghanistan, Pakistan and nearby areas. Former Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) commander Hafiz Saeed Khan was named as Governor of the province in Khorasan and Abdul Rauf Khadim, former Guantanamo Bay detainee and former Taliban commander in southern Afghanistan, was named the deputy governor. Khadim was killed in US drone strike in February 2015.
Therefore, the IS in Pakistan is led by former TTP cadres who are now spreading the IS narrative in Afghanistan. Some reports claim IS presence is 3,000 strong in Afghanistan. The measure of this initiative must be seen in terms of its westward expansion from across the Durand line. Assessments are that small groups of Jundullah and other like-minded groups have spread themselves into several Afghan provinces. Recruitment is being carried out mainly by doling out cash.
As a result of this parallel recruitment being undertaken by the IS, the Taliban faces a challenge. Some reports suggest that IS has managed to recruit whole platoons of Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers with their weapons in the North of Afghanistan. This suggests a gradual cadre building exercise. Also, reports of friction and fighting between the Taliban and IS in Afghanistan are witness to this intensified IS activity. That IS should presently be in control of Nangarhar Province is ample evidence of this fact.
Seen from another perspective, the battle between IS and Taliban is for the opium trade and gold smuggling in Afghanistan that has increased in the last year or so. Also, with new hybrid varieties of opium being introduced, it has become lucrative to try and control the supply and demand. Therefore, it is likely that the IS is trying to strike at the heart of the Taliban’s economic foundations. This could well be the reason for the 16 June letter sent out by Taliban to the IS leader al-Baghdadi warning the latter to stop interfering in Afghanistan.
Taliban is not only facing the challenge of recruitment, but is also faced by the possibility of someone else taking its place in Afghanistan. That of course, will only happen when its masters, the ISI decide that this will be so. There is another possibility though which needs mulling over. Could the Taliban missive be a suggestion to IS that it forges a united stand in Afghanistan? The English translation of the Taliban letter states at one point that “unity of lines is a need, necessity and obligation, especially when we are in war with American crusader Kuffar. Therefore Jihad in Afghanistan against Occupier American Kuffar and Allies should be under single banner and single leadership.”
When analyzing the present Taliban offensive against the Afghan government, several issues become apparent. There is an inconsistent approach that the President Ghani-led government is following towards the Taliban, in terms of dialogue and confrontation. Next, the spread of IS in a way suits the Afghan government as it puts the Taliban on the defensive. This also plays well with Pakistan, which will use the IS threat to get more funds from Washington for its so-called counter-terror operations!
IS in Afghanistan is a reality, of that there is no doubt. The issue at hand is the extent to which it has spread. Putin’s assertion of their presence being felt in 25 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces is an indication of the potential threat. The IS is active in Afghanistan through Pakistan and it seems unlikely that the military establishment in Rawalpindi, and the ISI are unaware of this fact. One would only turn to the Seymour Hersh’s article on Osama bin Laden in the London Review of Books to demonstrate this point. Pakistan’s establishment willingly harboured Osama in Pakistan, knowing and then one day gave him up to the US for a cost!
Pakistan’s long-term plan is to gain control over Afghanistan. They have already succeeded in getting President Ghani to become their fan! That however, will stop the ISI from playing games with the Taliban, the new breed of fighters in Afghanistan being from the Peshawar Shura. At this moment, a new player has entered the scene, i.e., Iran. Tehran is backing elements of the Taliban with its Mashhad Shura. If the Wall Street Journal report on the subject is to be believed, Tehran is going beyond mere provision of moral support to the Taliban and giving it weapons and the like.
There is no doubt that a new great game is afoot in Afghanistan. The US military presence appears to be the only stabilising force at the moment doing precious little. If the ANA is to be successful in defeating the Taliban, then the US will have to engage directly in counter-terrorism operations sooner than later or else the region will once again go back to 1990’s and a civil war could well be the call of the day.