The Islamic State’s followers are making significant inroads and steadily gaining strength in Afghanistan, as demonstrated by their recent vicious attack in Jalalabad that left 35 people dead. However, new reports have surfaced, though unproved, that the group’s emergence represents “a rebranding of marginalized Taliban” that has splintered from Taliban factions and pledged allegiance to the self-declared caliphate of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
But has the caliphate really arrived in the region? Or could this rebranding be part of a new tactic employed by Pakistan’s security apparatus to disguise the Taliban, its historical proxies, as the Islamic State, to support its sinister regional statecraft? It is certainly speculative, but it is nonetheless worth examining.
Pakistan and Afghanistan have admittedly been in an undeclared state of hostility for the last three decades, and although both countries have made conciliatory gestures, the matter remains unresolved. Afghan leaders seem to believe that Pakistan has never accepted Afghanistan as a neighbor and that Islamabad will always aggravate ethnic tensions to turn Afghanistan into a pliant state through its proxies. After the Islamic State crept into their country, Afghan authorities initially referred to them as mere terrorists and later as splinter Taliban groups that shifted allegiances by changing their name and flag. But assume there is an element of truth to Pakistan’s complicity in the rebranding, it is no doubt carefully constructed to shrewdly alternate Pakistan’s positions between the Taliban and the Islamic State’s Afghan offshoot in its favor.
For Pakistan, adopting such a masked tactic would appear alluring for at least three reasons.
First, it takes the Taliban, which Pakistan’s army has historically backed, out of the public spotlight, at least for now. In recent months, this has become particularly important as Pakistan feels mounting pressure from the region, especially from China, to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table to politically accommodate the Afghan government. Although Afghanistan has historically been uncharted territory in China-Pakistan relations and Beijing has a record of non-interference in Pakistan’s Afghan policy, Islamabad has, at times, adjusted its behavior to cater to Chinese demands. China wants to both subdue the Uighur separatists in its Xinjiang region who are actively struggling to take control of the province, and to deter the possibility of Uighers finding sanctuary and support in Afghanistan.
As an all-weather friend, China wields a degree of political and economic leverage over Pakistan. While Pakistan has signaled willingness to persuade the Taliban to negotiate, it naturally wants to keep its options open by creating a smokescreen to ensure that it maintains a toehold as a key interlocutor and disrupt the peace talks should the negotiations not tilt in its favor. Simply put, Pakistan would, on the one hand, use the Taliban leaders to negotiate a favorable political settlement with Afghan government, while on the other, it would exploit Taliban foot soldiers to pose as the Islamic State in Afghanistan. Doing so offers Pakistan a discretionary tool to undermine Afghan state through sporadic attacks and violence.
Second, while the caliphate’s dominion in Iraq and Syria is extraordinarily well-financed, if compared to its other ideological siblings, the Islamic State’s Afghan offshoot has limited resources. The Afghan group may be able to stage scattered attacks, but it cannot operate without external logistical support, especially money, weaponry, and manpower. However, Islamic State’s nearest base of operations is 1,500 miles away in Iraq but Islamic State fighters reportedly infiltrate Afghanistan through Pakistan and the group’s leader is a former member of the Pakistani Taliban. Hence, it is fair to believe that without material support and safe haven from Pakistan’s security institutions and their loyal proxy networks that are available to groups like the Islamic State, money and people would not travel.
Third, the Islamic State’s Afghan front has adopted tactics and manners that are akin to those used by Taliban itself. Similar to the Jalalabad event, the Taliban frequently stage attacks targeting public and government institutions and killing indiscriminately. Two weeks ago, for example, a bevy of insurgents spilled into Afghanistan and stormed a military outpost killing 30 Afghan soldiers. Both groups represent and operate under the same poisonous ideology and have enlisted people with little difference between their iron discipline and rough-and-ready justice that wins the affection of the marginalized. Intriguingly, both groups seems to share the same targets, their messaging in social media are remarkably similar, and they both have shown unfailing alertness in the field.
To an extent, Pakistan’s hand in this abortive affair appears somewhat obvious. For instance, one of the key characteristics of the Islamic State is that it focuses on its competitors and it crushes them whole, as evidenced in both Syria and Iraq. No such thing, however, has happened with respect to Taliban, either in Afghanistan or Pakistan. In fact, despite the anti-state Pakistani Taliban joining forces with the Islamic State, no attack targeting the Pakistani government or its security institutions has yet occurred in which the Islamic State has claimed responsibility. Yet, in the Jalalabad attack, a man allegedly associated to the Islamic State claimed responsibility through a statement on Twitter in Urdu, Pakistan’s national language. The Taliban, however, condemned the attack as evil, adding that “on ISIS we don’t comment,” warily distancing itself from the group in a way that only raises more doubts.
More significantly, swearing allegiances aside, the Afghan front does not seem to be under the direct control of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s leader in Iraq and Syria, nor does the group appear to be getting instructions from al-Baghdadi about targets. Indeed, it is unknown whether the Afghan group has made any contact with the caliphate. Additionally, despite the Islamic State’s alleged success in tempting some renegade Taliban groups to join, no noticeable rift appears to exist between the two groups; otherwise there should be some degree of rancor, at least on the Taliban side, towards the Islamic State in order to bolster its reputation.
Nonetheless, if the emergence of an Islamic State Afghan offshoot is in fact a reality, then Taliban leaders, as its primary rival, will be in a tricky spot. The Taliban would appear to be at risk of losing its aura of deliverance, as the group that forever altered the Afghan political equation. How that might affect its support base or the vigor of its fighters is not yet clear, but it makes a political solution to peace more problematic.
Regardless, while the Islamic State’s Afghan front, whether it truly exists or not, could stage spectacular attacks, they will not be able to persuade the Afghan people to fight for a retrograde religious philosophy to carry Islam across the region. Crucially, the infliction of deliberate torture for its own sake, or as a method of administration, has never been an Afghan penchant, although a smoldering resentment for foreign interventions has certainly manifested in violence.
To be sure, there is no tangible evidence to suggest that Pakistan is indeed pursuing this erratic course. However, given the country’s history of producing and fostering insidious elements, it is reasonable to believe that if anyone were a contact for the Islamic State in Afghanistan, it would be Pakistan, trying to use the group as an instrument to create a smokescreen and achieve its objectives. Regardless, the emergence of the Islamic State’s Afghan front is a trouble in the making. But unlike Syria and Iraq, Afghans will refuse to submit themselves to the rule of any other, and Afghanistan will not be part of the Islamic State’s dominion.
Javid Ahmad, a South Asia analyst, is a graduate student at Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University. On Twitter: @ahmadjavid.