The last quarter of the outgoing year witnessed a few spectacular attacks by the Afghan and Pakistani affiliates of the Syria-based so-called Islamic State, which raised many eyebrows regarding the group’s strength, capability, and future prospects in the region.
In one attack in October 2016, the target was a police training academy on the outskirts of Quetta, capital of Pakistan’s impoverished Balochistan province. In another attack in November, a suicide bomber blew himself up amid worshipers at a Sufi shrine in Hub, a remote district of the same province.
Across the border in Afghanistan’s eastern parts, we see reports on daily basis of ISIS capturing a village, killing an official, or recruits of the group being killed in fighting with Afghan forces or targeted in missile strikes from the U.S. unmanned aerial vehicles, popularly named as “drones,” in the region.
The key question is: Can ISIS secure a lasting foothold in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region in the near future? We can reach a logical conclusion by keeping a few key factors in sight.
Since the emergence of the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) in January 2015, almost all its top founding members have either been killed in fighting with the Afghan and international forces or in U.S. drone strikes.
Hafiz Saeed Khan, a former disgruntled leader of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP); Mullah Rauf Khadim, one of the influential leaders of the Afghan Taliban; Shahidullah Shahid, former spokesman of the TTP and a key liaison between the ISKP and the Syria-based Islamic State leadership; Gul Zaman Fatih, a former TTP leader and deputy of Hafiz Saeed Khan — all were killed in drone strikes and military operations months after the founding of the group.
Notwithstanding the group’s strong and somewhat effective propaganda tools and campaign in eastern Afghanistan and parts of Pakistani tribal areas, there is no charismatic leader left behind to take care of the new recruits or those interested to join.
The once dreaded Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan crumbled soon after the loss of its key leaders such as Baitullah Mehsud and Hakimullah Mehsud in drone strikes in 2010 and 2013 respectively.
In late 2015, the Islamic State group had a visible presence in at least eight districts of Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province. Just a year later, its sphere of influence has now been restricted to three districts — Achin, Kot, and Nazian — in Nangarhar province with few pockets of support in the eastern and mountainous province of Kunar.
The Afghan Taliban stayed united and strong as long as their so-called Ameerul Momineen Mullah Muhammad Omar was alive. The first-ever visible rifts emerged in this one of the worlds’ longest insurgencies soon after the announcement of Omar’s death and ascending of a new man to take his place.
While the strong Pakistani military has almost wiped out the “unwanted” militants from its tribal territory comprising seven districts (North & South Waziristan, Kurram, Orakzai, Khyber, Mohmand and Bajaur), the majority of those who escaped alive are now finding refuge in eastern Afghanistan in valleys and districts where the Afghan government’s authority is very weak.
Some of those militants, mostly from the Khyber and Orakzai tribal districts of Pakistan, were initially welcomed by the Afghan intelligence directorate or NDS to counter Pakistan’s support for the Haqqani Network or Afghan Taliban.
But the move proved to be counterproductive as many of those militants switched over to the ISKP soon after its emergence.
So far the Pakistani side of the border is very much secured and the ISKP may not be able to show a visible presence there. However, the group still holds areas in districts such as Achin, Nazian, and Kot in eastern Afghanistan. But the main obstacle for its growth in this part of Afghanistan is its strong rival, the Afghan Taliban.
The Taliban, on the basis of their past glories against a host of Afghan warlords, see themselves as the unchallenged force on the Afghan front. They draw inspiration from the leadership of Mullah Muhammad Omar and now regard Mullah Hebtullah (or Haibatullah) Akhundzada as the Caliph of Islam.
The ISKP leadership in Syria and its Afghan and Pakistani affiliates, on the contrary, regard Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi as the Caliph. The ISKP condemns the Taliban for being proxies of neighboring Pakistan and deplores their policy of non-interference in other countries.
Remember, when the Taliban’s slain chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour, in a letter, asked Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi to dissociate himself from the ISKP, the reply from an IS spokesman was stunning. The Syria-based spokesman termed the Afghan Taliban as a tool in the hands of foreign intelligence agencies and said that they had deviated from the true path.
Since then, the Taliban have launched an aggressive campaign against the ISKP supporters, chasing them wherever they emerge as a group. Their first action against the ISKP was in the country’s southern Helmand province, a stronghold of the Taliban. Then the Taliban chased the ISKP affiliates in the western province of Farah, followed by Taliban sweeping action in Zabul against the Central Asian militants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, who affiliated themselves with the ISKP to find a place for their families to live. The Central Asian militants had moved to Afghanistan following Operation Zarb-e-Azb by the Pakistani security forces in June 2014.
In Nangarhar, the Taliban launched an aggressive campaign after initially failed to dislodge the ISKP fighters from several districts and finally regained control of at least five districts. The ISKP is still maintaining a presence in three districts, namely Achin, Nazian, and Kot of Nangarhar province.
The Islamic State’s Afghan and Pakistani affiliates follow the strict Salafi creed, which sees the Deobandi scholars and their followers as superstitious. The majority of the Pakistani Taliban leadership came under Salafist influence due to their long-time association and close contacts with al-Qaeda jihadists in the tribal areas.
The Salafist militants do not show any regard for leaders of religious parties in Pakistan. For example, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party of Maulana Fazlur Rahman, led by another religious scholar Maulana Samiul Haq, is highly respected among the Afghan Taliban. But the Islamic State leadership calls them puppets of the “Murtad [apostate] army and government” in their propaganda.
Local Customs and Traditions
The mockery of local customs and traditions, which are stronger than any creed in the Afghan society, are also enmeshing the ISKP in tussles with the local people.
For example, visiting the graves of family members on occasions such as Eid (Muslim festivals) is a widely-observed custom among people living on both sides of the Durand Line. However, the Salafist jihadists see all those who visit graves as idolaters and hence apostates.
There were widespread condemnation from all over Pakistan and Afghanistan when a Salafi-influenced warlord bombed the shrine of 16th century Sufi poet Rahman Baba in March 2009. The Salafist Taliban, based in Khyber tribal district of Pakistan, had carried out the bombing because they believed it is un-Islamic for people to visit shrines and offer prayer.
A majority of the Afghan Taliban and the Afghan society alike is Deobandis and Hanafis. Similarly, on the Pakistani side of the border, people are Deobandis and Brelvis and both sects are viewed by the ISKP as idolatrous.
War Weariness Among Afghans
The emergence of Taliban in 1994 and their taking over of Kabul within two years was not a miracle. Apart from other factors, including covert support from Pakistan, the weariness of common Afghans with the continuing civil war and the presence of warlords also played a key role.
Afghans, who continued suffering during the Soviet invasion, saw a ray of hope with the Soviet withdrawal in 1988. However, the infighting shattered their hopes and they began to wait for a Messiah. The emergence of the Taliban was welcomed by all and sundry and the militia got immense moral and material support from the people. But this is not the case 15 years after the overthrow of Taliban. Today, majority of Afghans have no love lost for any armed group, including the Taliban and the ISKP.
Huge financial resources could help in terms of accelerating propaganda through conventional and social media as well as help buying loyalties of tribal elders, commanders from other militant groups, and even government officials.
That could have worked in favor of the ISKP had the Islamic State in Syria continued to keep its hold on the vast oil resources. However, the ISIS retreat from key cities in Syria and Iraq is a blow to all hopes among ISKP leaders and supporters, who thought of getting a fair share to expand their “jihad” in Afghanistan. The only available means left now for the ISKP are donations from sources in Gulf countries, extortion, and ransom, which are not enough to support jihadist activities on a wider scale.
External (State) Support
Insurgencies never continue for long in face of state power if there is no backing from powerful actors or states. The Afghan mujaheddin compelled the then-Soviet Union to leave the country only because they had full backing of the international community and they were enjoying safe havens in neighboring Pakistan.
The Taliban prevailed and still continue to be a formidable force despite a 15-year long campaign by the United States and its international supporters because they too have a support base in Pakistan. Their leadership’s presence in the Pakistani tribal areas or even in cities is no secret.
However, the ISKP so far has no visible support from any strong actor or state in the neighborhood or the region.
Shia Iran and Sunni Pakistan, the two closest and most powerful neighbors of Afghanistan, have never been on the same page since the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1988. Their hostility was at a peak during the Taliban regime in Kabul. One country’s friend used to be the foe of another. However, in case of ISKP, both neighbors seem to be on the same page regarding the threat.
Reports in the latter half of December even suggested that some top Taliban leaders participated in a conference convened by a university in Tehran, which is a clear signal of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Similarly, the ISKP calls the Pakistani government and army as “apostates” in their propaganda material. In this case, there is no chance of leniency on part of the strong Pakistani security agencies.
Since, the ISKP is supporting a borderless jihad which they believe could be extended to Europe only when they establish the state of Khorasan by capturing Afghanistan, Pakistan, parts of Iran, Central Asia, eastern parts of China and Russia, there is a high degree of concern regarding the group in all capitals.
A group at odds with its rivals, in tussle with local customs and traditions, and seen as a threat by all the major actors in a particular zone is unlikely to flourish. If it does, that would be no less than a miracle.
Daud Khattak is Senior Editor for Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty’s Pashto language Mashaal Radio. Before joining RFE/RL, Khattak worked for The News International and London’s Sunday Times in Peshawar, Pakistan. He has also worked for Pajhwok Afghan News in Kabul.