Rise of Islamic State in Afghanistan

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Introduction

A band of children, not more than 10 years old hold empty pistols in their hands as one Islamic State soldier demonstrates to them the manner of using it. They smile, innocently of course, with one of them accurately showing it to others the way it is done. All of this is happening in a part of Afghanistan, or the area which Daesh prefers to call Khorasan, as depicted in an Al Jazeera documentary. In January 2015, the Daesh announced its expansion with the creation of Wilayat Khorasan (Khorasan Province), comprising of the parts of present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan and nearby areas. In Afghanistan, it is primarily active in the Nangarhar province, bordering Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Now, besides the already existing Taliban, which has caused major distortions in the lives of the Afghans, Daesh would be another force which the people of Afghanistan will have to tackle and given the way it has succeeded in different parts of the world, it certainly poses a much greater threat than the Taliban does in the region. The rise of Daesh in Afghanistan needs to be seen in two different frames. The first frame concerns itself with the expansionist vision of the Daesh with its repercussions pertaining to the spread of ideology, geopolitical consequences and its impact on the nearby region (Central Asian as well as the South Asian region). The second frame would seek to look into the power struggle between the Islamic State and the Taliban for supremacy in the region and what prospects it holds for Afghanistan and the region. The article shall keep in its purview the ideological battle which is encountered in dealing with Daesh.

Turmoil in Afghanistan

Before we look into the different frames which I seek to analyze within the course of this article, it is important to understand the circumstances which shape the politics of the modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan region which Daesh seeks to control as a part of its larger agenda. Afghanistan is reeling under its years old conflict, where there is barely a sight for resolution in the face of failure of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), change in leadership of Taliban and the escalation of violence on a regular basis. Talks mostly have failed to yield any results which can play a slight part in stabilizing Afghanistan, the reason being that the parties to the dialogue have never found themselves on the same page. For example, Afghanistan and Pakistan have failed to arrive at an understanding especially after it came to light that when the recent killing of a Taliban chief occurred, the same had been paying frequent visits to Pakistan and even travelled to Iran at a number of instances from Pakistan. Hence, this further soured relations between the two States who have the most crucial role to play in the conflict resolution process.

Afghanistan still has the presence of a significant number of US troops and its own military has been coordinating with the US forces to control the violence. However what is more disturbing is that now Daesh too has joined the fray and given the way it operates in Iraq and Syria, it has largely been difficult to control it through military, air strikes, etc. For years Afghanistan has faced violence at the hands of Taliban, and now they have someone new, someone as ghastly or perhaps even more to face. This familiarity with violence is perhaps the only assuaging factor for Afghan people who now have another enemy to deal with, with whom peace is not an option available on the table.

Twin blasts of July, 2016 clearly sent out the signals of escalation of conflict in Afghanistan by Daesh. Over a period of the last two years, it has been largely successful in building up its presence in the eastern part of Afghanistan, conducting its operations from the Nangarhar province. In Afghanistan, Daesh chooses to target anyone who has even close links with the Government or anyone whose ideology Daesh does not ascribe to. As stated above, there is still a huge presence of US troops in the region, however, it doesn’t come as a surprise that they, along with the Afghan forces have failed and might fail to check the rise of Daesh in the region. Certainly, the battle is much more than that of guns, it is ideological and exploitation of the politics of exclusion, to which I shall come to at a later stage. Another angle of seeing this could be that since Daesh is already reeling under the pressure of the military might of the US, UK troops and Kurdish forces, et al in Iraq and Syria, it is very pertinent for it to extend its presence beyond the said territories and reverberate with its presence in other parts of the world.

Challenge to Taliban’s Dominance

The 13th edition of the Islamic State’s magazine Dabiq contained anti-Al Qaeda and anti-Taliban writings. The magazine states Taliban as a threat to the Caliphate therefore seeking its elimination so that the Caliphate can flourish in Khorasan. It is notable that it accuses Taliban of not adhering to the Sharia law and perhaps seeks to evoke sentiments in one of its own peculiar ways. The then Chief of Taliban, Akhtar Mansour reportedly wrote to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi asking him not to interfere in the domain of Afghanistan which is under Taliban’s dominance, though of course it was paid no heed. Before even establishing a full-fledged caliphate in the Khorasan region, what engulfs Daesh is to counter already well-established Taliban which has been dominating the region since years. A number of fighters have deflected from Taliban and have joined Daesh, which no doubt is a cause of concern for the Taliban as it necessarily raises questions about its significance to the people it is comprised of and the dominance it has hitherto exercised. These are largely the disgruntled youth who went on to join Daesh and continue to do so. However, what differentiates the two is that Taliban cannot necessarily be defined as a sectarian force, but Daesh necessarily fuels sectarian ideas and operates on its basis. In response, Taliban has even gone to the extent of creating some “special forces” to counter Daesh.

The ideological battle

We now have a plethora of instances to our memory which time and again send chilling reminders of the fact that a huge military presence and so-called “secure territories” are nothing more than a myth and Daesh is a force which in itself is a huge idea, successful in attracting masses to its ideology, mainly youth, as the latest experience of Bangladesh seeks to tell us. The larger and troubling question has always been and will be that how this multiplication of the ideology can be controlled. It can be said that, to a great extent, the politics of exclusion and intolerance towards other beliefs have fuelled the extremist views, which Daesh has been successful in exploiting. Afghanistan is a chaotic state, with almost no certainty regarding its everyday affairs, from security to political stability, with no consistent dialogue process. Daesh is suited to operate the best amidst the chaotic conditions, like it did in the post-invasion Iraq and disordered Syria. In Iraq and Syria it exploited the disenchanted Sunni population, especially youth, who are the most vulnerable ones, and the Sunni-Shia divide came to be defining the spectrum of power and violence. A similar structure could be seen in Afghanistan where Hazara community in particular was the target of the July blasts, and perhaps could be of the similar ones to follow, given the way it exploits factions. Further, the unstable relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have contributed to churn out the instability and hamper progress of any dialogue, which certainly has created ground for Daesh’s ideology to prosper, as chaos is what Daesh is known to exploit well, be it in Lebanon or Bangladesh. Here, it seeks to displace Taliban by leveling charges of non-adherence to the Sharia law and playing the trump card of ideology. Therefore, a visible tactic here is that it seeks to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the masses through invoking religious texts and scriptures.

 It is therefore not surprising that Daesh has established itself along the boundary regions with Pakistan which have been reeling under the civil war hampering the post-civil war nation-building process. Furthermore, Daesh has been successful in providing considerable sums to its fighters, which is a very important issue in a country where there is already huge unemployment and meager income and its sources on which peoples’ lives persist. In Afghanistan, the primary reason for people getting attracted towards Daesh is its long unguarded border with Pakistan, attractive salaries which it provides to its fighters and foremost, its effective propaganda machine that it employs to achieve its ends. No doubt the stakeholders of the region, viz., the US, Afghanistan and other powers of the region would be conscious of the fact that they would not like to allow Daesh the privilege of gaining ground as Taliban did in the 1990s. If the same is left to happen, no doubt the consequences which would follow will be more severe than could be imagined. The situation becomes even more critical as around 2/5th of the US troops are set to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2017. Perhaps the solution to this growing trouble is by introducing systematic reforms and establishing cleaner institutions. In a grim picture, people of Afghanistan are now trapped between Taliban and new entrant Islamic State.

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