Recently, Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) activity in the outskirts of Nangarhar, Afghanistan have once again made it to the headlines. As per reports a few months back, Afghan and U.S. forces and authorities claimed to have broken the back of ISKP. But somehow ISKP has reappeared stronger than before, with greater numbers and extremely sophisticated heavy and light weaponry.
In addition to that, ISKP assassinated another tribal leader, Malik Qasim Khan, who was leading the fight against them. That makes the third anti-ISKP tribal leader in a row. Moreover, amid the fighting ISKP has taken many locals as prisoners to their sanctuaries in the mountains. Distant villages located in the Afghan side of Spinghar Mountains, to the west of the Durand Line, are regularly besieged and remain so until aerial support arrives. It is now reported that ISKP has not only restarted their radio transmissions but also expanded it to five languages.
It is by now an established fact that defying the Soviet Union in Afghanistan with extremist insurgent groups has had a lethal impact on the immediate region, if not globally. The second mistake was outsourcing the Afghanistan post-Soviet withdrawal to Pakistan, which in turn managed safe havens for regional and transnational terrorist groups that Afghanistan is still grappling with. Sanctuaries and support to these groups were provided by Pakistani intelligence either directly or via its various “veritable arms” Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), and the notorious Haqqani Network, who in their turn never shied away from harboring their ideological siblings like al-Qaeda. We have witnessed the backlash of this abhorrent policy in the region in the shape of the Taliban as well as the simultaneous re-establishing and further expansion of al-Qaeda under the Taliban regime and its far-reaching terror activities and consequences beyond the region. Meanwhile the Western world was jolted awake from its decade long negligence thanks to the horrific attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
Once again, the very same sponsor of the Taliban and al-Qaeda has decided to establish a terror group — this time, the regional variant of the Islamic State (ISIS) known as the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP). This new brand of terrorism is key for prolonging the conflict in the region, thus establishing Pakistan’s role in any counter activities and providing a perfect tool for squeezing out more foreign funds and perks. It is a well-calculated game plan and one that is attractive in the region, at least for the time being. For example, an assertive Russia does not mind the propagation of the ISIS threat in Afghanistan and the immediate region, as it gives Kremlin the perfect card to deal with Central Asian Republics who have tried to stay away from Moscow’s sway for the past two decades. At the same time, it provides Iran the option to increase its sectarian-based geostrategic interference in the region, thus inviting Gulf States to counter activities in Afghanistan and the region.
It is within this regional geopolitical calculus that the ISKP phenomenon has been brought to fore as the next big thing. Although ISKP is linked to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, in fact it is a totally distinct phenomenon and specifically designed for this region. However, the connection between ISIS and ISKP in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region can be traced back to when thousands of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Tehrik Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and al-Qaeda members and affiliates were recruited and sent to Syria to fight alongside Syrian rebels against the Assad regime. After the split between al-Qaeda and ISIS leader al-Baghdadi, most of these recruits sided with the latter instead of their long term allies al-Qaeda. Months after this split when Islamic State emerged in 2013, LeJ’s top leadership went to Saudi Arabia and “met Islamic State leaders at an undisclosed location at Saudi-Iraq border area.” The visiting delegation from LeJ also extended an invitation to Islamic State leaders to visit Pakistan for more recruitment and support.
The Islamic State, being at odds with al-Qaeda whose presence in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region is a well-known fact, welcomed the gesture. After almost a year, in September 2014, a three-member ISIS delegation, headed by Zubair al-Kuwaiti and including Sheikh Yusuf from Saudi Arabia and Uzbek commander Fahim Ansari were received in Islamabad. The group was escorted to Rawalpindi to meet Jamaat ud Dawa and held talks with members of Jamaat Islami of Pakistan. The ISIS delegation went on to meet several commanders of the various TTP’s wings, including Lashkar-e-Islam Chief Mangal Bagh. The message delivered by the ISIS delegation, was plain and simple: Unite to secure IS support.
The TTP and others began running a propaganda and recruitment campaign for ISIS. On December 14, the Army Public School massacre took place. After the attack, the TTP continued its campaign of recruitment. On January 10, 2015 six TTP commanders announced their allegiance to ISIS via video message. On January 26, ISIS accepted the TTP commanders’ allegiance and announced the establishment of Islamic State of ‘Khorasan Province’ (ISKP), chosing Hafiz Saeed Orakzai as its leader. That is the basis of the connection between IS and ISKP.
ISKP in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region is not cut of the same cloth as the Islamic State we have witnessed in Syria and Iraq; therefore it is a mistake to think of them as the same. The regional brand of ISKP in the making is more a consortium of several TTP fragmented groups combined with the already existing LeJ, JuD, Jem, Jundullah, IMU, disgruntled Taliban groups, and a dozen other groups nurtured through the decades in Afghanistan and Pakistan. These terrorist outfits tasked to operate under the banner of ISKP are more like a marriage of convenience than a union based on shared ideology. It is to be noted that these groups have always operated for decades with the blessings of the Pakistani state and its intelligence wing. They are highly dependent on each other for continued existence.
This facilitation of the activities of terror groups by Pakistani Intelligence has precedence. For decades, terror outfits have used Pakistan to travel to and from various conflict zones, often with the connivance of Pakistani intelligence officials as was evident most recently in the case of former Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Mansour. These terror groups are bargaining chips, as Asad Durrani told Al Jazeera. Despite Pakistan’s alliance in the war of terror, specifically targeting al-Qaeda, the group is still active and has now established an al-Qaeda Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) wing. The terror groups active in the region had their own distinct operating principles, but since the emergence of ISIS we have witnessed a systematic attempt to make the outside world believe that they all now operate under Islamic State. For example, previously the LeJ and LeT groups were operating across the Durand Line under the banner of Haqqani Network and since the emergence of ISIS they have been rebranded.
ISKP needs a territory to establish itself, from which it can operate, show strength, and remain unscathed but above all from which it can easily be supported and supplied. The latter has proven to be crucial for proxy groups’ survival, as seen in the examples of the Taliban, Haqqani Network and al-Qaeda.
The territory designated for establishing ISKP is strategically located and agriculturally self-sufficient, consisting of a complex web of caves, passes, villages, and routes stretching from Khost, Paktia, and Logar provinces via Nangarhar to Kunar and Nuristan. It is easily accessible from the already-established proxy routes across the Durand Line. Pachir wa Agam district of Nangarhar province is to be the center of gravity for this purpose. First, Pachir wa Agam district borders the infamous Tora Bora mountains and cave complexes, which have proven to be the perfect sanctuaries for extremist and terror outfits. Second, Pachir wa Agam serves as a vantage point to reach Achin and Nazyan districts to its east, Surkhrod district and Jalalabad city to its north, and Sherzad and Khogyani districts to its west. ISKP and its handlers are of the opinion that the Afghan Army is incapable of ever penetrating or pushing them from Tora Bora and they anticipate that the United States will not wage a full-fledged counterterror offensive similar to the one in 2001.
Third, this area, including Pachir wa Agam district, borders Kurram Agency, which is the closest point in Pakistan to Kabul. Kurram Agency, with its many Pakistani military installations and training camps, has been at the service of terrorist and extremist outfits since the start of the war against the Soviet Union. This makes the newly chosen territory for ISKP well within reach of the Pakistan Army, its paramilitaries also known as the Frontier Constabularies (FC), and its vast intelligence network right across the Durand Line. ISKP is thus will continue to be supplied from Kurram Agency via two routes: the Zeran Pass, which is the shortest and has the lowest altitude in the Spinghar Mountains but unusable in the winter season. The other route is via the Nazyan Pass, which is a well-known smuggling route, fit for providing year round access but slightly longer. The journey from militant bases in Kurram Agency via Nazyan Pass takes two-and-a-half hours, half an hour by car and two hours by mule.
Last, it is an established fact that drug traffickers had a substantial presence in the region that ISKP is aiming at. Aside from drug trafficking, the area itself has a significant amount of opium production. Both the Pakistani Intelligence and TTP are known for earning revenue from the drug trade and for using drug money to support themselves. The same will continue, but now under the name of ISKP.
To this end the Pakistan deep state and its army are prepared to go to any distance to provide military, logistical, and financial supply to ISKP. Contrary to the assumption that ISKP mainly consists of TTP splinter factions and operates on its own, a closer look at its fighting tactics and operational capacity reveals more. For example, the ISKP in Nangarhar were twice attacked, once by the Taliban and then by Afghan and U.S. forces. But after each assault they regrouped in greater numbers and were better equipped. This rapid supply and refill in the aftermath of each assault hints at a systematic supply chain of ISKP managed by the Pakistan Army.
Contrary to what is propagated, the manpower of ISKP comprises a mixture of Pakistani Army regulars, the Frontier Constabularies (FC), and a combination of TTP splinter factions and LeJ/JuD/JeM affiliates, depending on the territory assigned to them. Looking at the track record of Pakistan along the LoC, its recipe for mixing up Pakistan Army regulars and irregulars has been a tested formula for decades. The material power of ISKP comprises heavy and precise weaponry, which can only be at the disposal of and operated by the Pakistani Army or paramilitary forces such as FC and Rangers. The fact is that operating these sophisticated weapons at all requires months of professional training, let alone using them in a mountainous region such as Tora Bora.
The necessity to strengthen ISKP ranks with Pakistani Army professionals and paramilitary is due to the fact that ISKP has had to endure heavy losses while fighting the Taliban as well as Afghan and U.S. forces. This faltering of ISKP forced Pakistan to speed up the process of nurturing its presence, at least along the Durand Line adjacent to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. It needs to be stressed that Islamic State (ISIS) threat in the shape of ISKP is Pakistan’s main bargaining tool with the region but particularly Russia.
To sum it up, it is not a material connection between ISKP and ISIS that is needed in the Afghanistan-Pakistan context but more the umbrella of ISIS, which the already existing extremist and terror outfits in the region can use a cover for operations. At the same time, the ISKP brand can pave the way for a significant role for the state of Pakistan both in the pro- as well as in the anti-ISIS camps.
The motive for this new regional design remains the same: prolong the conflict in Afghanistan, blackmailing the region and the world to squeeze out concessions and funds to sustain Pakistan’s military-industrial complex. Although ISKP has claimed several attacks in Pakistan, for the past year or so, its primary focus had remained on the area located to the west of the Durand Line: Afghanistan and the Pashtun belt of Pakistan, comprising the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Global and regional indifference to this evil in the making will have grave consequences for Afghanistan, western Pakistan, and the rest of the world.
Khyber Sarban served as an adviser in Afghanistan’s Independent Directorate of Local Governance. He can be reached at @khybersarban