ISIS and Afghanistan
Summary: Reports that some Taliban groups might be joining a new local Islamic State force within Afghanistan, while other Taliban groups might be resisting them. Is the Taliban at risk of fragmenting?
Update 15 November 2015: My thoughts on the ISIS attacks in Paris are here
Update: Leader of Hezb-e Islami, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an active insurgent leader in Afghanistan, reportedly declared allegiance to Islamic State in July 2015. This looks to be a highly opportunistic move (in line with previous actions and endeavours). My thoughts here.
“BBC, 12 Jan 2015 The first concrete evidence has emerged of attempts to recruit fighters in Afghanistan for the so-called Islamic State (IS). A former Taliban commander in Helmand province, Mullah Abdul Rauf, has declared his allegiance to IS…the new group had fought with the Taliban after replacing white Taliban flags with the black flags of IS. He said about 20 people from both sides had been killed and injured. The deputy commander of the Afghan army unit responsible for the area, General Mahmood, confirmed that he had received reports of the new group within the past few days. He said they were trying to win support for the IS cause, and they were “preparing to fight”. The leader of the new movement, Mullah Abdul Rauf, was a former senior Taliban commander who spent six years in Guantanamo Bay after being captured by US forces in 2001…There had been reports that he had fallen out with the leader of the movement Mullah Omar.
Rauf is a distant relative of the Governor of Nimruz province, Amir Mohammed, who said that the commander had lost a leg before being taken to Guantanamo. The governor said that IS had already attempted to recruit people in Farah, another south-western province, but had been driven out by local people with the help of the police. He said they were all the same: “Once they fought under al-Qaeda name, then as Taliban, and now IS, they are the same people with the same programmes.”
In another sign that the Taliban are facing internal challenges, a former spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban has appeared in a video online, saying that there were several IS commanders operating, and that the Pakistani Taliban were now allied to the movement. There is no independent verification of this claim, but the video had images of several commanders across Afghanistan who were also said to be now backing IS. In the video they claim to have shifted their allegiance from the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, to the IS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. This represents the first serious challenge to the coherence of the Taliban leadership for many years…There are also accounts that a group called Khorasan has been attempting to recruit fighters in Wardak province. Khorasan is an old name for Afghanistan, and is a word that carried mythical overtones for some Muslims after an ancient prophecy that black flags would once again fly in Khorasan before the end of the world. The US said that an air strike near Aleppo in Syria last September was on a base used by a previously unknown group also called Khorasan. This group was allied to Islamic State, but it is not clear if there is any connection with the attempts to win support for Khorasan in Afghanistan. This all appears to mean that the Afghan conflict is entering a new and unstable phase.”
“News 24: An Afghan general has confirmed for the first time that the extremist Islamic State group is active in the country. General Mahmood Khan, the deputy commander of the 215 Corp, says that within the past week residents of a number of districts in the southern Helmand province have told him that a man called Mullah Abdul Rauf is recruiting fighters for the group, which controls large parts of Syria and Iraq. He says Taliban insurgents are resisting the ISIS presence. Some parts of Helmand are not under government control and have seen fierce fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security forces since US troops pulled out more than six months ago. A video released online on Saturday purports to show militants from both Afghanistan and Pakistan pledging support to ISIS.”
And The Independent reporting here on additional BBC information:
“The Independent, Sept 2014: Militant Islamic fighters in Afghanistan who are linked to the Taliban have said they would join forces with Isis, should it manage to create an Islamic caliphate. Commander Mirwais, who belongs to the Afghani militant group Hezb-e-Islami, told the BBC that the group “will continue to fight until we establish an Islamic state”.
He called Isis by their Arabic name, Daish, stating this Hezb-e-Islami has links with some of its members. “We are waiting to see if they meet the requirements for an Islamic caliphate,” he said.
“If we find that they do, we are sure that our leadership will announce their allegiance to them. They are great mujahideen. We pray for them, and if we don’t see a problem in the way they operate, we will join them,” Mirwais added.”
Analysis and Outlook
A lot of information here and I don’t have a good sense yet of what it might mean. It smacks more of individual Taliban outbreaks of opportunism brought about by dissatisfaction with the lack of “victory” that should have fallen into place after the withdrawal of the Americans et al. Their website declared victory on 31st December last year. They also declared victory in January 2012, however.
The Economist suggests that:
“while the Taliban have very clearly not been defeated militarily, politically they have been routed. There was a good turnout in two rounds of the presidential election earlier this year—with nearly two-fifths of the votes cast by women—despite Taliban attempts at intimidation and disruption.”
I think it is a little strong to declare “rout”, but the Taliban have certainly been looking a little bankrupt in terms of ideas and actions. They have made no major military progress, they are clinging to terrorist tactics ever fraught with the risk of popular backlash, and some pretty routine propaganda, particularly when compared the Islamic State’s frankly impressive PR profile. Is it small wonder that some elements of the Taliban are looking enviously at the media profile, military successes and sheer global impact of Islamic State? An inter-Taliban civil war is at least one plausible outcome from this.
The insertion of another terrorist/insurgent force into the mix would be potentially very destabilising. And a fragmented Taliban would be much harder to reach out to in terms of political settlements. I don’t think this necessarily means new faces suddenly turning up. But with a “pendulum effect” I can see many insurgent groups “rebadging” themselves and joining a more plausible force to deliver victory, just as, in late 2001, many militia groups notionally aligned with the Taliban chose pragmatically to switch sides once it became clear that the Americans were coming in force. A former Taliban commander – Mullah Abdul Rauf – seems to be the main driver at present. It is also interesting that the insurgent group Hezb-e Islami might also be having problems with shifting allegiances as well.
We need to watch the Taliban reaction closely – does it drive them into some form of peace deal with Ashraf Ghani’s government in order to avoid marginalisation and irrelevance? That seems unlikely at the moment as they seem to have turned down such an option only a few days ago. Might they find some way of co-existing and collaborating with IS? This also seems less likely – the Taliban are a local force focused on internal Afghanistan issues. The last thing they appear to want to get involved in is someone else’s global jihad. Perhaps the Taliban might resist IS? The report of fighting between rival groups seems very plausible – I seem to recall sporadic outbreaks of fighting between the Taliban and Al Qaeda a few years back.
But, overall, a new layer of IS on top of a fragmenting Taliban would only be bad news.