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The Looming IS Threat in Including Russia and Central Asian States

By Zahid Hussain

July 15th, 2015

AS the Afghan Taliban sat face to face with the officials of the Kabul government in Murree last week, its fighters were locked in a bloody turf war with the self-styled Islamic State or Daesh back home. For long, the presence of the militant group in this region was downplayed; many even dismissed it as a purely Middle Eastern phenomenon with little possibility of it making inroads outside that region.

But now the terrorist network has raised its monstrous face in this region, apparently driving out the Afghan Taliban from some of their strongholds in eastern Afghanistan. The IS advance makes the Afghan civil war more complex and brutal as the Taliban struggle to maintain unity in their own ranks. This lends greater importance to the Murree talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government to find a political solution to the crisis in Afghanistan.

Although some of its senior commanders are believed to have been killed in the latest US air strikes in Nangarhar province, IS continues to expand its tentacles. The militants pledging allegiance to the Middle Eastern movement have now reportedly gained ground in at least three Afghan provinces marking an escalation in its power struggle with the Taliban. The black flag of IS has reportedly replaced the white ones of the Taliban in swathes of the area.

While the number of IS-affiliated fighters is small, divisions among the Afghan Taliban can swell their ranks.

Some media reports suggest that IS now controls more than a quarter of Nangarhar province bordering Pakistan. The group has also been active in Helmand and Ghazni provinces where scores of Taliban fighters have reportedly been killed in power struggles. Several recent terrorist strikes in the region carry the IS hallmark.

Surely most of the IS fighters come from the ranks of the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban, who find the appeal of a self-proclaimed caliphate with substantive territorial control in Iraq and Syria much more attractive. The extremist Sunni sectarian groups are also raising the banner of the IS drawing a closer nexus between militants on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. What is most alarming is that IS-affiliated militants are trying to extend their activities to northern Afghanistan which has turned into a major centre of anti-government insurgency.

Significantly, the breakaway elements of the TTP are taking sanctuary on the other side of the border as IS forces have seized control of a substantive part of Afghan Taliban territory in Nangarhar. Hafiz Saeed Khan, a former Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan commander has been appointed as head of the Pak-Afghan chapter of IS. The earlier report of his death in a US drone strike has been denied by the group. The air attack, however, reportedly killed many senior Pakistani militants including Shahidullah Shahid, a former spokesman of the banned TTP.

While the number of fighters affiliated with the IS still remains small, the growing split in the Afghan Taliban is likely to swell its ranks. The group received further impetus with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar hopping on the IS bandwagon. A fractious government in Kabul, a widening gap between the Afghan Taliban leadership operating from outside and the commanders on the ground creates a more favourable situation for the IS to expand its base, thus threatening the stability and security of the entire region.

Not only are the IS militants in eastern Afghanistan reportedly better equipped, they are loaded with money that helps them buy off the loyalty of the villagers and lure new recruits. The source of this cash flow is not clear. Many believe that the Afghan operation is being directly financed by the IS ‘caliphate’ in Iraq. According to some media reports, the group has imposed a much stricter regime in the areas they have seized from the Taliban in Nangarhar. Last month, the Taliban warned IS and its self-styled caliph, that “jihad against the Americans and their allies [in Afghanistan] must be conducted under one flag and one leadership”.

Given the fact that it was only in January this year that the first IS footprints emerged in Afghanistan, its gains are quite substantive. It was Mullah Rauf, a former Guantanamo Bay prisoner and one of the most senior Afghan Taliban commanders, who first raised the IS flag in Helmand that is considered the stronghold of the insurgents. Though he was killed in a US drone strike just one month later, the organisation secured a strong foothold in the province openly challenging the Afghan Taliban.

Though the emergence of the group in Afghanistan went largely unnoticed by Western forces, it did draw the attention of the new Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, who declared the IS a greater threat to Afghanistan than the Taliban. Probably, it was one of the reasons for reconciliation with the Afghan Taliban becoming a major component of his policy to bring an end to the war in Afghanistan. And he understood well that it could not be achieved without a rapprochement with Pakistan.

Surely, the rise of IS in Afghanistan has also alarmed neighbouring countries including Russia and Central Asian states as they fear it forming a nexus with local extremist Islamic groups. A regional response is needed if the militant group makes further gains in Afghanistan.

Pakistani authorities continue to downplay the IS presence in the country that may have very serious ramifications for the country’s security. Though most of the IS-affiliated TTP dissidents have fled across the border and are concentrating their activities in Afghanistan. IS footprints have been found in some of the recent sectarian-based terrorist attacks in the country. The strong IS propaganda through internet and social media has also been a source of radicalisation of educated young people.

A glaring manifestation is the accused of the Ismaili bus killing in Karachi in May this year. The young university graduates involved in the heinous crime were reportedly influenced by IS propaganda. The spread of IS will have dire consequences in an already combustible regional situation. Only a joint regional effort can stop an enemy more relentless and savage than the Taliban ever were.

Zahid Hussain is an author and journalist.