By Hekmatullah Azamy

October 2016

In 2014, Afghanistan witnessed major political and security breakthroughs. The country held its third presidential elections since 2001 and for the first time since 1901 there was a peaceful transfer of power. More importantly, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) took over full security responsibility from NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which ended its combat mission on 31 December 2014. Mandated to train, advise and assist, NATO’s Resolute Support Mission (RSM) continues to support ANSF beyond 2016. However, the election of the new government and the transfer of the security responsibility did not resolve the conflict in the country.

The drawdown of NATO troops left a security vacuum that the ANSF failed to fill. Operational for more than a decade in Afghanistan, local and transnational militant outfits, including Afghan Taliban, Haqqani Network, Hizb-e-Islami Gulbaddin (HiG), al Qaeda, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM a.k.a. Turkistan Islamic Party TIP), Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and their affiliates, continued to pose grave threats to security in Afghanistan and beyond.

Moreover, external developments such as the launch of Operation Zarb-e-Azb in Pakistan’s tribal areas in June 2014 and Daesh (aka Islamic State in Iraq and Syria [ISIS]) announcing a caliphate also overshadowed the security dynamics in Afghanistan. Fleeing Operation Zarb-e-Azb, foreign fighters associated with al Qaeda, IMU, ETIM and TTP were increasingly seeking safe sanctuaries in Afghanistan. In late 2014, a massive influx of foreign fighters crossed the porous border into the Afghan side and entrenched their presence in Helmand, Zabul, Ghazni, Farah, and the eastern and northern provinces of Afghanistan — where Daesh would appear months later.

With the announcement of the caliphate, Daesh quickly found supporters among Afghans. In early September 2014, reports surfaced of Daesh fliers being distributed in Peshawar, Pakistan and nearby Afghan regions soliciting pledges of allegiance to the movement and its self-declared caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Welcoming the group, former senior Afghan Taliban commander Abdul Rauf Khadim travelled to the Middle East in late 2014 and swore his fealty to al Baghdadi. In January 2015, Daesh-Central formally recognized the Afghanistan-Pakistan region as part of their Khurasan province and appointed its leadership.

Daesh’s emergence in Afghanistan complicated the militancy landscape and rapidly transformed alliances between different local and foreign militant outfits. Elements within the Afghan Taliban and groups like IMU saw Daesh’s expansion as an opportunity to rebrand. Support for Daesh for the first time fragmented the Afghan Taliban, which had prided themselves for maintaining unity since its emergence in 1994. Similarly, IMU—long a close ally of the Taliban—shifted allegiance from Taliban founder leader Mullah Muhammad Omar to al Baghdadi, while its offshoot, called Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), and TIP remained with the Taliban. Sharing an adversary with Daesh, al Qaeda, too, reaffirmed allegiance to the Taliban.

Divisions between pro- and anti-Daesh groups were widening as disenfranchised Taliban and those foreign militants with a history of reluctant cooperation with the Taliban were increasingly teaming up with Daesh to counterbalance the Taliban. The shared Salafist ideology, global jihadi agenda, vast financial resources, rapid territorial gains Daesh made in Iraq and Syria and being sidelined by the Taliban leadership, all made Daesh attractive for Taliban and IMU defectors. This fuelled competition between Daesh supporters and the mainstream Afghan Taliban as both appeal to similar recruits.

The Taliban were threatened by losing men, influence and income to the even more aggressive and ambitious Daesh. The Taliban, however, were initially hesitant to directly confront Daesh as it would have undermined the legitimacy of the former’s longstanding jihad, making it appear power hungry and motivated by self-interest.

The Taliban’s immediate approach was to avoid losing men to Daesh and to attract defectors to return. The group created a “recruitment commission” to reach out to those who had defected to Daesh and to prevent its vulnerable members from leaving to join the Daesh.  The Taliban were also secretly helping Afghan security agencies to pinpoint Daesh commanders in areas out of the government writ. This worked in Helmand as former Afghan Taliban commander Khadim was killed, resulting in the failure of Daesh to progress in the province. After Khadim’s death, Daesh attempted to gain a foothold in Zabul, Ghazni, Logar, Farah and the northern provinces. The Taliban’s covert anti-Daesh campaign was proving less effective because Daesh was becoming overstretched in several provinces and was vocal against the Taliban and its invisible leader Mullah Omar. This urged the Taliban to fight the group militarily.

Countering Daesh’s influence became an important agenda of the Taliban when the latter launched their annual spring offensive, codenamed “Azm”, in April 2015. The Taliban shifted focus from their traditional strongholds in the south and east to northern Afghanistan to prevent Daesh-affiliated IMU from gaining autonomy. Teaming up with regional countries, including Iran and Russia—also threatened by Daesh in Afghanistan—the Taliban later announced that they were deploying the “special forces unit” the group had created to confront Daesh. The rival groups fought in several provinces, resulting in heavy casualties on both sides.

In the midst of confronting several state and non-state actors, Daesh is struggling to make progress in Afghanistan. After its failed attempt to establish several fronts and to gain a foothold in the southern and northern regions, Daesh has been concentrating on the eastern provinces, particularly Nangarhar and Kunar. Supported by countries like Iran and Russia, the Taliban’s anti-Daesh campaign, coupled with airstrikes as well as ground operations by Afghan forces and private militias and frequent US drone strikes, continues to challenge Daesh’s potency. Nonetheless, the group’s managing to remain operational, though at a smaller scale, is indicative about its future and prospects of imprinting itself in Afghanistan.

Daesh seems determined to build footholds in Afghanistan. Declaring Khurasan as its Wilaya (province) was the first expansion of Daesh-Central outside of the Middle East. For Daesh, the legitimacy of an Islamic State across the Muslim world will be perceived to be defective without its expansion into Afghanistan because of the historical relevance and geostrategic importance of Afghanistan to Khurasan. Being a conflict zone with a history of providing safe sanctuaries to transnational jihadists, Afghanistan also particularly attracts Daesh’s attention. The group aims to turn the country into its “regional headquarters” and to use Afghanistan as a springboard for its operations in the broader south and central Asia regions in the long run. Having a footprint in Afghanistan would allow Daesh fanatics from these regions to go, in relative safety, to Afghanistan instead of the Middle East to get military training. Moreover, Daesh-Central also sees the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region as an alternative safe heaven for its leadership should it be cornered in the Middle East.

Daesh’s future in Afghanistan is directly linked to that of Daesh-Central in the Middle East. Should the former become the recipient of regular and large financial and personnel assistance from its mother organization the group would make unprecedented progress in so-called Khurasan. However, there are many local opportunities that Daesh in Afghanistan is keen to exploit which would allow the group to grow in strength in the face of resistance from its foes.

To boost its influence and legitimacy in the Afghan theatre, Daesh is looking to find sustainable financial sources and is trying to justify its presence by Islamic theology using the Khurasan card. Khurasan has significance in Islam and it is predicted that at the end of time black banners will rise from Khurasan and will free the Muslim land. Contemporary Afghanistan is the heart of Khurasan, which included parts of Pakistan, Central Asia, Iran and China.

Daesh is also attempting to trigger sectarian divisions between Sunni and Shia in Afghanistan. Sectarian violence will be the breeding ground for Daesh recruitment and if there is any response from the Shias, Daesh will use it for their propaganda to recruit more hardcore Salafists—who are growing in number.

Lastly, Daesh seems to be following developments within the Taliban post-Mullah Omar closely. Not only can the Taliban leadership crisis supply more defectors to Daesh, in addition, pro-Daesh Taliban leaders gaining prominence within the Taliban can help to create a conducive environment for Daesh to grow.


* The author contributed this paper as a chapter to special issue of Panorama – Insights into Asian and European Affairs journal on “Countering Daesh Extremism – European and Asian Responses” jointly published by Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) and the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. It was submitted on 25 July 2016 and published on 21 October.
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