IS – a big hurdle for Afghan peace

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By Manish Rai

The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for an attack on the centrally located Communications Ministry building in Kabul last month. A local arm of the Islamic State has repeatedly targeted both official and civilian facilities as well as religious gatherings in the Afghan capital. The Afghan affiliate of IS, commonly known as the Islamic State of Khorasan, has been active in the war-torn country since 2015, fighting the Taliban as well as Afghan security forces. Recently it has carried out some bold attacks to make its presence felt.

The ISK has received significant support from the Islamic State’s core leadership in Iraq and Syria since its founding in year 2015. Now that the Islamic State has lost its core territory, it might have turned to Afghanistan as a base for its global caliphate. A recent United Nations publication has commented: “The ISIS core continues to facilitate the relocation of some of its key operatives to Afghanistan.” The United States military estimates that there are about 2,000 Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan. Despite their small number they pose a grave threat. That’s why the United States dropped one of the largest bombs in its inventory, the MOAB, on a cave complex used by the ISIS terrorists in eastern Afghanistan in April 2017.

The Islamic State is pushing hard to expand into a country that for decades has hosted Taliban and Al Qaeda. In order to establish a foothold in Afghanistan, the ISK is challenging both the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Rather than attempting to co-opt these groups, as it did with groups like Ansar Beit al-Maqdis in Egypt and Boko Haram in Nigeria, in Afghanistan Islamic State leaders have tried to discredit the dominant local groups. This is leading to frequent deadly clashes with Taliban in which the battling sides have lost hundreds of fighters.

It’s very clear that the Islamic State won’t enter into an adjustment with the Taliban, the largest insurgent group. The ISK is trying to portray Taliban as an Afghan-centric force that wants to restore its government in Afghanistan rather than fight for Islam. It says the Afghan Taliban should be seen as a political rather than an Islamic force. At this point in time the Islamic State is neither as powerful as the Taliban nor capable of taking control of significant swaths of Afghanistan as it once did in Iraq and Syria. Still, it has the potential to wreak havoc in the country as it has attained enough operational strength, organisational structure and skills to carry out large-scale attacks.

Afghanistan is widely known to be one of most militant-saturated battlegrounds in the world. The notable presence of an Islamic State affiliate has further complicated a multifaceted militant landscape. Everyone who keeps an eye on the security dynamics in Afghanistan knows that the forces in the country are actually trained to fight insurgents. Insurgents, mostly, employ hit-and-run tactics, including insider attacks on security forces. On the other hand, organisations like the Islamic State don’t operate like that. They launch massive attacks, and diversify their targets to confound the security apparatus.

The mismatch between ISK tactics and Afghan security forces counter-insurgency training gives the group ample breathing space. IS has shaken the jihadist landscape of the country making it more complex, violent and polarised. Moreover, the growing competition between the IS and Taliban has affected the country’s security and stability. The IS model has also provided the new generation of jihadists with a viable alternative.

The ISK presence could complicate any US peace deal with the Taliban, who have agreed not to allow any terrorist group to use Afghan soil as a haven to plot attacks against the West. For decades, Afghanistan has been struggling to reach a political settlement with its insurgent groups. A strong ISK could deepen the sectarian rifts. It has already been attacking the minorities. That would also make it harder to bring about the social cohesion necessary for any kind of political settlement in future.

The Islamic State appears to have emerged as a dangerous threat in Afghanistan, one that could grow to overshadow the Taliban. Hence, the United States and its allies should ensure that the Islamic State is prevented from carving its own space in the war-torn country. If the ISK cannot be effectively countered, the political landscape of an already complex society stands to become even more complicated and ugly. A strong IS in Afghanistan is a threat not only to the region but also to the entire international community. We know that the ISIS is hostile to any accommodation with the West and its allies; in many ways it is deadlier than Taliban and Al Qaeda, as its sole focus on global jihad motivates its fighters to launch attacks on the West as soon as they see an opportunity.

(The writer is the editor of Viewsaround news agency.)