Daesh in Afghanistan: It gets Weakened but Not yet Vanquished in Syria-Iraq
Alvite Singh Ningthoujam

It has been a little under two and a half years since January 26, 2015 when Daesh announced in Afghanistan, the establishment of its South Asian affiliate known as Islamic State in Khorasan (ISK). The outfit’s now-deceased spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-Adnani made this announcement of the expansion of the so-called caliphate of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi into the “lands of Khorasan”. The term ‘Khorasan’ encompasses a vast geographical territory of South and Central Asia. The affiliate was created to mainly operate in the countries already destabilised by terrorism — Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Daesh’s attention towards Afghanistan started at a time when its activities were at its peak as it then controlled a large swathes of territories in Syria and Iraq. Daesh started to shift its focus on Pakistan and Afghanistan since late 2014, the year it announced the Caliphate in Mosul in Iraq and urged Muslims worldwide to “ obey” the self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It can therefore be argued that ISK came into existence not because Daesh was perceived as a force on the retreat but as part of its global ambition of establishing the caliphate with much wider foot-print across all major Muslim dominated countries. Since then, discussions relating to the influence of Daesh and its physical presence in the Af-Pak region, have largely centred on the number of fighters it has on the ground and the outfit’s capacity to launch operations to secure wider territories to be able to assert its role and presence. On these parameters, available information and estimates have remained vague and varying.

In April 2016, Russian President’s Special Envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, gave a striking figure as high as 10,000 fighters while a US report estimated it at a more realistic level of 2,000 to 3,000 during the same period. However, there are reports that the number of Daesh fighters in Afghanistan could be as low as 700 to 1,000 fighters. Such variation in numbers could be attributed to the fact that right since the inception of ISK, there has been a fierce competition between the age-old terror group — Taliban — its splinter groups and factions and the ISK. A floating number of insurgents could also be shifting loyalties from one to the other, based on local ethnic and tribal considerations. This was predicted at the time ISK was launched and it is apparently the case at the moment.

In a country where Taliban still remains one of the most prominent terrorist organisations, the entry of the new-kid-on-the-block — Daesh under the area specific brand name ISK —has apparently not been given adequate attention to, or is not being considered a major threat to reckon with. This is mainly because of a prevailing mind-set that the ardent supporters and sympathisers of Taliban would prevent Daesh militias from making serious inroads into the country and they do not give much importance to this West Asia-origin outfit. Notwithstanding its smaller size of the group (population wise) during the initial days, the fact remains that Daesh was able to attract recruits not only from within Afghanistan but also from Pakistan and Central Asian countries, including elements of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Most of them were former fighters of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Afghan Taliban who became disillusioned with their leadership.

One of the main reasons for such defection, as mentioned by one analyst is because, “The Taliban movement is fragmented and, in the absence of visible leadership, some of its members have begun to look to Syria and Iraq for guidance and inspiration”. Many of these defectors were attracted to Daesh primarily because of its large possession of wealth, territory and thousands of foreign fighters. Many of the villagers in Helmand province were lured with money and recruited in the organisation. Daesh’s constant propagation of their ideologies, hatred for the infidels or disbelievers, foreign players and external intervention in the Muslim world, and the whole idea of establishing an Islamic Caliphate to be governed by Sharia law, were also responsible for the initial attraction towards the new entity. In other words, the growing visibility and influence of Daesh during 2014 and early 2015 were attributing factors for Taliban, local and regional fighters joining Daesh in Afghanistan.

In January 2015, the video-tape through which formation of the ISK was announced revealed the name of Hafez Saeed Khan, as the “governor” of the outfit. He was one of the six commanders of TTP (or Pakistani Taliban) who pledged allegiance to Daesh in October 2014. Another prominent leader was Pakistani Taliban’s former spokesperson Shahidullah Shahid, who took up the important role of appointing local commanders for manning the various territories along Pakistan-Afghanistan border. A former Guantanamo detainee and southern Afghanistan’s Taliban commander, Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim, was appointed as deputy governor and he operated as recruiter in Helmand province until he was killed in a drone strike in early February 2015. Then on, the organisational structure of ISK began to be shaky as some of its top-level leaders were killed, mostly by the United States (US) drones and coordinated efforts with the Afghan security forces. Consecutively, Shahid met with a similar fate as with other fellow terrorists in July 2015, in Achin district of Nangarhar province.

While the news of the death of Hafez Saeed Khan in July 2015 was rejected by his group, subsequent reports in mid-2016 “confirmed” his death in July 2016. Prior to this, reportedly, the onus of running the organisation from late 2015, fell on another former Taliban fighter Abdul Muslim Rahim Dost, who, since September 2014, started to recruit in provinces like Kunar and Nuristan, with the objective of sending the fighters to join the jihad in Syria. In this year alone, two eminent leaders - Shahid Omar and Abdul Hasib - were killed in February and April, respectively. Continuous elimination of these high profile leaders in quick succession dealt a serious blow and could be attributed to the inability of ISK to spread its tentacles far and wide and, effectively.

Most importantly, ISK could not raise its profile as a resolute outfit due to which its activities remained confined to launching sporadic and mostly disjointed attacks. Notwithstanding the absence of a long enduring leadership, Daesh and other militants linked to it did managed to carry out some brazen attacks between early 2015 and mid-2017. This, to an extent, put its presence in Afghanistan into perspective, more so by remaining an outfit whose capability to cause damage could not be entirely discounted. These attacks had happened amidst the non-clarity of the actual number of fighters and uncertainty over Daesh’s military capabilities in Afghanistan. However, a common thread of similarity between Daesh-connected attacks outside and inside Afghanistan is the modus operandi, that is, suicide blasts (which is one among the many tactics).

As is the case in other parts of the world, linkages to Daesh for any major carnages comes mainly from the statements released by the outfit in its media agency — Amaq — claiming responsibility for any event. One of the earliest instances was the attack near Kabul Bank in the eastern city of Jalalabad in April 2015 where at least 33 people were killed and injured over 100. As Taliban, in the past used to claim responsibility for a similar attack on this financial establishment, Daesh’s direct involvement was viewed with scepticism but not entirely ruled out. The attack, if it was conducted by Daesh, demonstrated its growing capabilities which could not be underplayed anymore. Just a month earlier, President Ashraf Ghani had warned the US lawmakers about threats emanating from Daesh not only in Afghanistan but also in the region. In February this year, a similar concern was echoed by Afghanistan’s ambassador to India, Shaida Mohammad Abdali, who said, “Afghanistan is just the staging ground for Daesh (ISIS) for the entire region to become unstable. Daesh in Afghanistan is not just for Afghanistan, but it is a phenomena that will destablise the entire South Asian region”.

During then and now, what remains worrisome is the sectarian overtone in the attacks allegedly carried out by terrorists linked to Daesh. Persecution and discrimination against this community are not a new phenomenon. With a brief period of lull during later part of 2015, the succeeding years — 2016 and 2017 — witnessed several attacks that mainly targeted civilians from the Shiite community and other ethnic groups. For instance, in July last year, Daesh claimed responsibility for an attack against Shiite Hazara group in Kabul that killed at least 80 people and wounded over 230. This was considered to be the deadliest attack in Kabul since 2001 carrying high prospects of intensifying sectarian conflict in the country. This was followed by the killing of 30 people, including children (after kidnapping them), by militants linked with Daesh in the Ghor province in late October 2016. During mid and late November 2016, the outfit reportedly carried out two major attacks. While one of them targeted the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) killing four personnel, the second was aimed at a Shiite mosque in Kabul, resulting in the death of over 30 people.

The repeated attacks on the Shiite community illustrated the intention of Daesh to sow seeds of discord within the Afghan society. Alongside this, the group’s vehement opposition to the presence of international forces is also exhibited by its attack on a military convoy near the US Consulate and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) compound in Kabul (killing eight civilians and injuring at least 25 people) on 3 May this year. A couple of months earlier, in March 2017, at least 30 people were killed when a suicide bomber and three Daesh gunmen had attacked an army hospital in the capital city of Kabul.

The frequency of occurrence of a series of violent activities by Daesh, to a large extent not only exposed the questionable level of preparedness or capacity of the Afghan security forces in dealing with forces representing serious terrorism but also such simultaneously executed successful terror strikes could give further boost to this late entrant’s claim for competitive supremacy over its rival, the Taliban, in territorial and ideological terms. This should be a worrying scenario for all those working towards restoration of peace and order in this country which has all the essential ingredients to sustain militancy orchestrated by organisations like Taliban and Daesh.

As mentioned aptly by noted experts Ashley Tellis and Jeff Eggers from the US-based think-tank, Carnegie Endowment, “the [Afghan] political system is marked by deep cleavages; governance is handicapped by corruption and an inability to deliver law, order, and justice across the entire territory; the Afghan military as a whole is still not effective enough against a resilient Taliban insurgency…” In the light of this, notwithstanding Taliban as the most formidable terror outfit operating in the country with humongous public support, even limited presence of Daesh — ideologically and physically — will undoubtedly add to the chaos. Moreover, owing to differences in their objectives - Daesh promoting the idea of a ‘global caliphate’ and, Taliban seeking more legitimised entry into the power structure domestically - a fierce competition between these two groups cannot be overlooked or ignored. It has also been discernible that Taliban and its supporters have expressed extreme resentments to some of Daesh’s brutalities.

The possible rise of Daesh in the Af-Pak region in the future could result in accrual of some unintended advantages to the Taliban. This refers to a situation in which Taliban could be perceived as a ‘lesser of the two evils’ by the western players and Pakistan, encouraging them to negotiate a deal with the Taliban as a bulwark against the spread of Daesh in the region and beyond. In reality, presence of both groups is undesirable not only for Afghanistan but also for the entire region. India, in particular, should be cautious of such potential moves, especially when some of its citizens have also started reaching Afghanistan in search and support of Daesh or ISK. The call on Indians by one of the fugitives, Abdul Rashid Abdulla, from Kerala, to carry out “lone wolve” attacks should not be underplayed. However, the country has been fortunate so far by not witnessing any major Daesh-connected attacks. Therefore, India needs to carefully watch the Daesh/ISK-related developments in Afghanistan and the threats radiating out from this country.

Given the present-day scenario, any move by Daesh to physically raise militarily and ideological presence in Afghanistan will not be smooth. Their endeavours to establish a firm control in Afghanistan will continue to be challenged by both Taliban and the combined efforts of Afghan and American security forces. The recent killing of nearly a hundred Daesh fighters when the US military dropped GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast Bomb (MOAB), also known as the "mother of all bombs", is one such manifestation. This, however, should not lead to complacency and, of course, does not mean that they will vanish soon. Daesh militias will intermittently continue to carry out attacks and look for further opportunities to secure their position inside the country. Therefore, there also should not be a distinction between a ‘good Taliban’ and ‘bad Daesh’, and both need to be tackled firmly and effectively. Leaving only one of them weakened or destroyed will give the remaining outfit the opportunity to recruit more people, thus sustaining insurgency, militancy or terrorism in the country.

Lastly, alongside the US military role in fighting Daesh, the internal divisions that exist within the Afghan political system need to be resolved at the earliest. Today, as Daesh is getting cornered in Syria and Iraq, it seems to have started looking for alternative bases to re-establish the caliphate (which also included Libya). These tendencies need close monitoring and firm reprisal at the very inception.


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