By Dr Raza Khan
A wave of terrorist attacks, several of them claimed by the Islamic State, in Afghanistan have yet again raised fears that the deadly outfit is entrenching itself in the war-torn country. Iraq- and Syria-based militant groups, as well as the Islamic State had been able to get a toehold in Afghanistan soon after its phenomenal rise in 2014 in the Middle East. However, despite the deep desire of its central leadership to expand to Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, the outfit has so far been unable to establish an elaborate network in these countries. It was due to some punitive action by NATO forces against the Islamic State that temporarily eliminated its hideouts. The US action against the Islamic State in Afghanistan include the use of mother-of-all-bombs in Nangarhar province of Afghanistan bordering Pakistan.
However, this action could not eliminate the command and control structure of the Islamic State. There have been charges from Russia and former Afghan president Hamid Karzai that the Islamic State has been deliberately facilitated by the US in Afghanistan. Whatever the truth is, the Islamic State has a huge potential to spread its tentacles in Afghanistan and beyond in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.
Since its emergence the Islamic State has been trying to establish a global “Islamist caliphate” in the world. Against this backdrop, all the four main South Asian countries, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, are of crucial significance for the Islamic State. Firstly, because of the predominantly Sunni Muslim population of these countries, barring India that is home to one of the largest Muslim communities in the world but dominated by a huge Hindu majority.
Secondly, the Muslim population of these countries comprise mostly young men and women largely dissatisfied due to bad socioeconomic conditions of their countries and of Muslim communities in India.
Thirdly, the Islamic State is cognisant of the fact that Afghanistan and Pakistan have served as the rallying ground for al Qaeda in the recent past.
In Afghanistan, the Islamic State established strong sanctuaries in eastern Nangarhar province bordering Pakistan’s Khyber Agency, as well as Zabul in southern Afghanistan and Kunar in the northeast along the Pakistani border. At one point in 2016 a sizable number of men, mostly former Afghan Taliban fighters, joined the Islamic State in Afghanistan and in the beginning a former Afghan Taliban commander, Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost, became a defacto head.
However, the central commander and the so-called ‘caliph’ of the Islamic State based in Iraq and Syria, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, refused to establish separate chapters of the group in Afghanistan and South Asian countries. Instead in early 2015 he established a regional chapter, crosscutting several countries, of the Islamic State and termed it Wilayat-e-Khurasan. Baghdadi appointed Saeed Orakzai, a former Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) member from Orakzai Agency, as the head. A number of TTP commanders also joined the Islamic State in Afghanistan.
The rise of the Islamic State in Afghanistan is prima facie surprising. However, there have been reports that the National Directorate of Security (NDS) is behind the steady growth of the Islamic State. The NDS wants to use the Islamic State against the Afghan Taliban and conduct terrorist attacks inside Pakistan. As the Afghan security establishment is dominated by former Communist-era officials, they have a natural affinity with the Islamic State. However, this is a dangerous strategy which may further push the region into turmoil as could be seen in Afghanistan right now.
The Islamic State has not been able to expand into Pakistan because of the country’s resolute policy regarding the group. Former Pakistan Army chief General Raheel Sharif made it clear that his forces would not let even a shadow of the Islamic State fall on Pakistan and the present army chief is following suit. But with a huge Muslim population, there is a great potential for the Islamic State to get many recruits and funding from Pakistan. The pervasiveness of a radical Islamist narrative in the country could also drive many to join the IS. Therefore, there is a need to counter the threat at every state and societal level.