Islamic State Opens Third Front in Afghanistan

Strategic Culture
by Nikolai BOBKIN

The leaders of the Islamic State (IS) have announced their intention to spread the group’s activities eastward, including Afghanistan and Pakistan. The US does not rush to recognize the fact of Islamic State’s presence in Afghanistan, but Kabul does not deny the information that the group’s militants coming from Syria and Iraq are operating in the country. 

According to Afghan official sources, the Islamic State is recruiting in Afghanistan with dozens of propagandists sent to spread the group’s ideas among the ranks of young people. «We will either become captors or martyrs», say propaganda messages from the Islamic State published in Fatah, a pamphlet published in local languages and distributed to Afghans. These pamphlets invite citizens of Afghanistan to pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-declared caliph of IS, and join the jihad against non-believers. There are no calls for an alliance between the Islamic State and the Taliban – the terrorist groups which are on the path towards a direct military conflict. The Islamic State would like to open a third front in Afghanistan (after Iraq and Syria). The Taliban remains to be an important element of Al Qaeda – the group the Islamic State distanced itself from to offer a much bloodier scenario aimed at its coming to power. Evidently, the situation may spur a new wave of escalation in Afghanistan. 

In the south the Islamic State is trying to split the Taliban to make the group’s militants join its ranks. The sources say that Mullah Abdul Rauf is recruiting Afghan fighters for IS in Helmand, the largest Afghan province. He spent six years in the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay after being captured by American forces in 2001 to join the Islamic State in Syria. He believes the IS and the Taliban have common ideological ground but the existing differences exclude a close union. The IS objective is to provoke a split in the Taliban’s ranks and make at least part of the group change sides. 

The Taliban’s spiritual leader Mullah Omar left the country after the US invasion of 2001. He is not in active command. His inactivity does not suit many Taliban warriors ready to adopt the IS tactics. The Islamic State tries to prevent the process of reconciliation in Afghanistan and gain time. The group is not strong enough to take a foothold in the country, but it plans to support those who take its side with arms and money. The clashes between the security forces and armed opposition have intensified recently. Normally the militant formations are 500-600 men strong. They wear the same black clothes and operate under the same black flags as the Islamic State. More foreigners are fighting in their ranks. Newcomers belong to the branch of Islam that differs from the one practiced by local population. Government forces suffer great losses. The militants do not limit their actions to local attacks and subversive activities only; they try to hold the captured facilities and populated areas for more than just a day. More militants taken prisoner come from the neighboring Pakistan. 

The leaders of Pakistani Taliban have already pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and are ready to contribute into the creation of Islamic Caliphate. In a message translated into Urdu, Pushto and Arab says, «All Muslims in the world have great expectations of you … We are with you, we will provide you with Mujahideen (fighters) and with every possible support». It’s a call for all terrorist groups operating in the Middle East and South Asia to coordinate their activities aimed at toppling the Afghan government. The Pakistani army is launching an attack against the local Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan. It has made the group’s militants move to Afghanistan. They are well armed and mainly deployed in the central and southern parts of Afghanistan – the areas where the government control is weak. Pakistani Taliban fighters face no obstacles on the way of building training infrastructure to enhance their combat skills on the territory of Afghanistan. This is one of deplorable results the 13-year long operations conducted by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the United States together with some of its NATO allies (the Operation Enduring Freedom). 

The Islamic State activities are not limited by some part of Afghanistan. The IS propaganda efforts are on the rise in the north of the country. The leadership of Afghan special services has confirmed that the Islamic State militants have appeared in the areas adjacent to the Turkmenistan border. Their activities have intensified near the border with Uzbekistan. The group named «Marg» (which means death in Dari, one of two official Afghan languages) has emerged in the Afghanistan’s northern Balkh province. A few days ago it stated that fighting the Islamic State is its primary goal. Kabul welcomed the statement as timely and necessary. In October 2014, the head of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Usmon Gozi, made a statement that his terrorist organization had joined the terrorists of Islamic State. A few hundred militants coming from Uzbekistan are fighting in the Islamic State ranks in Syria and Iraq. 

On December 23, President Vladimir Putin said at the meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), «The current situation causes concern», Putin said. «The units of the so-called Islamic State fighters appear which aspire to include some provinces of Afghanistan into the so-called Islamic Caliphate. The terrorist and extremist groups are trying to spread their activity to Central Asia. In these conditions the CSTO countries should be ready to take appropriate, preventative measures». Moscow believes that common sense will overcome and do away with the hindrances on the way of practical interaction between NATO and the CSTO. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called for intensifying efforts to counter the threat coming from Afghanistan within the framework of the United Nations and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. 

The US administration shies away from recognizing the fact that the Western military presence in Afghanistan has lasted for many years to produce no practical gains. The US has widely praised its fight against terrorism which in practice brought about quite opposite results than expected. The terrorist threat has grown. The crisis in Afghanistan has put into doubt the whole Western strategy aimed at turning Afghanistan into a contemporary state. 

The US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel does not exclude the possibility of sending US army units to fight the Islamic State in Iraq. Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby says it may require three-five years to defeat the Islamic State. Until now American have not made any comment on the fight against the IS in Afghanistan. Washington takes no steps to prevent the jihad warriors’ movement into that country. 

Strategic Culture