ISIS’s shadow on Afghanistan

ISIS is trying to make of Afghanistan its new theatre of action, but to what extent can it establish a presence there where the Taliban already are the leading actors?

There is an Afghan proverb that says: “After every darkness is light”.
Afghanistan, though, has been living in darkness for the last decades – a darkness made of foreign invasions, internal strives, tribal fights and terrorism. And every time it seems that light is finally emerging on the horizon – as it did last summer when the peace talks in Murree took place – darkness overcomes everything again.

As if Taliban terrorism was not enough to put into question hopes that light will ever shine on the mountains and stony terrains of Afghanistan, the new threat to the country’s security is coming from ISIS, whose black flag has been trying for the last months to envelop Afghanistan.
According to estimates, there are currently in Afghanistan between 1,000 and 3,000 ISIS fighters, whose presence in the country is mainly localized in Nangahar, Farah, Helmand and Zabul, and whose aim is to occupy what they refer to as Khorasan – old name used to designate Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan, Iran and Central Asia. Of those fighters, the majority is made up of former Pakistani Taliban (TTP) and Afghan Taliban who left their original groups either to join an organization they consider more active and successful or to take the distance from prospects of peace talks that they deem an affront to all they have been fighting for and all the Taliban represent. The presence of fighters coming from the Caliphate in Iraq and Syria is instead an extremely limited phenomenon that leads to think that ISIS fighters in Afghanistan are mainly individuals who swore allegiance to al-Baghdadi but without being under his direct control and orders.
Since the Khorasan branch of ISIS was proclaimed last January, it has been posing a direct threat to the Taliban – Afghanistan’s number one terrorist group – who are now countering ISIS’s efforts through a special force exclusively devoted to fighting “with all possible means” the black-flagged threat.

Over the last year, thus, Afghanistan has become the theatre of a confrontation between two groups that are amongst the world’s most violent expression of that Islamic terrorism that has emerged over the past decades as undeniable reality of today’s international politics.

But what are ISIS’s prospects of success in Afghanistan? To what extent is it likely for al-Baghdadi’s group to find room of action in a country like Afghanistan?
Not much, actually.

Needless to say, the main obstacle for ISIS in Afghanistan is represented by the Taliban – not only for the fight they have put up against them but because of the support they enjoy in many provinces of the country.
For a terrorist group willing to establish a long-term presence in a country and willing to enter the political dynamics of a country, the support of the local population is an essential element. We just have to think of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) to realize how this is true. Under the leadership of al-Zarqawi, and even more so after his death, AQI embraced a brutal strategy that cancelled the support that the Iraqi Sunni community had initially given to it. Collapsed such relationship with the local population, the group became ever more isolated and its capacity of action declined to the point that in 2010 it was considered doomed to disappear. It was indeed only by retrieving that crucial relationship with the locals that al-Baghdadi could make the group rise again.

In Afghanistan, though, it is extremely difficult for ISIS to establish a direct and solid relationship with locals and to win their support, because here there are the Taliban who enjoy that support. They are the native, powerful, resilient and long-established group that in many regions of the country have been able (and still are) to provide the population with those services and institutions that Kabul is not able to provide. In these areas, it is extremely difficult for ISIS to replace the decade-long support for the Taliban. Nor is it easier for ISIS to enter the areas where Taliban are not present. These areas are in fact those in which the Taliban encountered Kabul’s active and successful competition in providing services to the population and winning its support, or simply determinate resistance from the locals against the Taliban system. It is therefore difficult to imagine here a different outcome for ISIS.

But the difficulties for al-Baghdadi’s group in gaining support are not only due to the fact that there are already the Taliban to provide shadow government institutions and that in Afghanistan there is not everywhere the power vacuum the group found in Syria in 2011-2012.
Another element to be taken into account has less to do with politics and more to do with religion, culture and ideology.
ISIS, in fact, adheres to the radical Salafi branch of Sunni Islam, according to which the only way to faith and salvation goes through a way of life as close as possible to the model set forth by the Prophet.
The Taliban, instead, do not belong to Salafi Sunnism but are expression of Sufism and embrace an ideology that finds its roots in Deobandi (the ideology of the madrassas in which early Taliban leaders received their education).
These differences, far from being irrelevant, represent a further obstacle on ISIS’s path to success in Afghanistan because the Afghan population reckons itself in the Taliban’s ideology that being considered heretical by ISIS is source of a major gap between that group and the people. A gap that ISIS’s enforcement of a Salafist propaganda might only risk to widen at its own expenses.

So, if in Iraq and Syria ISIS entered the local scene by exploiting the link with the Sunni community and by cooperating with the Sunni tribes against Shia governments, in Afghanistan this is not the case.
Not only the battle for minds and hearts of those Afghans dissatisfied with the central government was won by the Taliban decades ago, but the ethnic and religious landscape of Afghanistan is not fragmented enough to make it possible for an external group to intervene by exploiting internal divisions.
Moreover, in Iraq and Syria ISIS could take advantage in its rise of governments that had taken up a sectarian agenda and deliberately excluded from any form of power and political representation certain groups. Differently, in Afghanistan we do not have such a situation. There is a government that not only tries to be as inclusive as possible in terms of groups’ representation but is also trying of engaging into dialogue with the Taliban, after reckoning that giving them legitimate channels of political expression is crucial to have stability in the country.

Afghanistan, thus, seems to leave no room for ISIS’s intervention in the country; and if “After every darkness is light” there might be room to hope that the threat represented by ISIS’s brutality could become a point of contact between the Taliban and the government, that can better fight together the Caliphate’s shadow.

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New hopes for Af-Pak-India?

The bilateral meeting between India and Pakistan held in occasion of the Heart of Asia Conference could be opening new room for dialogue, capable of influencing not only the relations between Islamabad and New Delhi, but also those with Afghanistan in the broader regional arena

In early December, Islamabad was the venue of the Heart of Asia Conference, instituted by fourteen countries to discuss and frame common policies that could stabilize Afghanistan – the country at the heart of Asia – and thus increase security in the whole region.
On 8th December, there was the Senior Officials meeting, while on 9th the much-awaited ministerial meeting. To make the latter so important is the fact that it was turned into an opportunity of dialogue between India and Pakistan, there represented by Sushma Swaraj and Sartaj Aziz.
After the fiasco in August, when the meeting planned months before was cancelled at the very last minute due to disputes on the topics to be put in the agenda, there were few hopes that it would be possible to witness a change of direction so soon. And if it is undoubtedly premature to talk now of “turning point” in reference to the Islamabad meeting, the fact that it took place is encouraging per se. A sign that, maybe, something is moving in South Asia and the fiercest enemies of the region can respond to new chances of dialogue timidly emerging on the horizon.

So, what did create these chances of dialogue? Not a single, specific event but rather a series of events that altogether had a positive impact in recreating a minimum level of mutual opening.
Firstly, there was the meeting between Modi and Sharif at the sidelines of COP21, where it seems that new points of contact were found on the issue – for India crucial – of the Mumbai terror attack of 2008, with respect to which Sharif promised a speeding up of the investigative and punitive processes.
A week later, there was the bilateral meeting in Bangkok between the heads of the respective national security agencies, during which they talked of terrorism, border clashes, and the Kashmir issue (probably the biggest wound caused by the partition process of 1947 and still open and bleeding today). Clearly too soon to talk of significant steps forward, the meeting nevertheless ended with a joint statement in which the climate of dialogue was described as constructive and cordial (adjectives not often encountered when India and Pakistan are the subjects).

It is in this surprising climate that the third stage of this latest path of rapprochement took place: the meeting between Swaraj and Aziz.
Publicized by both sides as sign of disposal to retrieve those relations interrupted in August, the meeting marked the revival of those peace talks interrupted in 2012 and is thus a positive step for both Modi and Sharif.
On the table, the main topics were the issue of Kashmir – whose resolution is for Pakistan the key of the relations with New Delhi – and terrorism, topic of particular importance for India that has always considered itself (and not without reasons) victim of that Islamic terrorism supposedly financed by Islamabad. Complex and delicate topics that not only touch the bilateral relations India-Pakistan, but also interest (and are interested by) broader regional dynamics and other actors (namely Afghanistan and China).

In particular, it is of primarily importance the role played by Afghanistan in this new chance of distension.
Afghanistan, indeed, finds itself both upstream and downstream of the dialogue, as actor potentially capable of inducing Islamabad and New Delhi to mutual rapprochement and as actor that from the Indo-Pakistani distension as all to gain.
Regarding Afghanistan’s role in the dialogue between the two historical rivals, we should above all remember its position – at the heart of Asia. It is indeed because of it, that the afghan dynamics touch in a crucial – when not even direct – way the dynamics of the regions’ actors, thus interesting both Pakistan and India.
An Afghanistan secure and in peace, founded on political institutions fully functioning and independent from external influences, would thus be a source of stability and security for the whole of South Asia. It would imply the presence in the center of the region of a reliable partner and of an economic, commercial and energetic bridge linking South Asia and Central Asia.
Conversely, an Afghanistan unstable and unsafe as it still is today – where the control exercised by the central government doesn’t reach all provinces, where there are areas under Taliban control, where the presence of foreign troops is essential to avoid the collapse of the local security forces – makes more unsafe the whole region (as the continuous terrorist attacks prove).
India and Pakistan, then, have undoubtedly much to gain, both in terms of security and in terms of commercial and energetic prospects, from a sincere cooperation that includes among the other objectives the stabilization of the western neighbor.
From Kabul’s perspective, then, it is to be considered that what said thus far applies also in the opposite way: a distension between New Delhi and Islamabad is for Afghanistan desirable, since it would have for the country significant advantages – especially in terms of military and intelligence cooperation in the fight against terrorism, and in terms of investments.
Going beyond an afghan foreign policy that after embracing for years an exclusive friendship with India has diverted direction over the past twelve months and moved towards Pakistan, Ghani should invest his energies in pushing for an India-Pakistan rapprochement from which it has all to gain.

Favoring the dialogue between the two long-time rivals is thus of regional interest in order to create new and positive dynamics of cooperation, in absence of which the “Asian Century” cannot become reality.

Nato’s two-fold task in Afghanistan

The military dimension is only one part of NATO’s work in Afghanistan in support of ANSF

On Tuesday 2 December, during a NATO meeting held in Brussels, the alliance’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced that NATO would keep in place its “Resolute Support” training mission in Afghanistan throughout 2016. Precisely, it will maintain in the country up to 12,000 troops – of which 7,000 from the US and 5,000 provided by NATO and its allies.
Moreover, NATO discussed on an extension of the financial support to the Afghan National Security Forces. According to what decided in Chicago in 2012, in fact, the current package of financial aid should end in 2017, but on Tuesday Gen. Stoltenberg announced the launch of a campaign aimed at raising 3 billion euros for keeping the program in force over the biennium 2018-2020.

The decision taken by NATO to extend its training and financial support to Afghanistan has come only two months after President Obama, on 15 October, found himself forced by events to postpone that plan of withdrawal that he had promised since the beginning of his mandate, and that he had hoped would be his last and most positive legacy in foreign policy. Thus, instead of drawing down to 5,500 the number of American troops in Afghanistan, the current level of 9,800 will be maintained through 2016.
As well as President Obama’s, NATO’s decision is the result of major security concerns. The past year has indeed been one of the bloodiest ones for the country in terms of terrorist attacks, with the Afghan Forces still too weak to counter-attack the Taliban effectively and to curb their advance, and the Taliban proving an offensive capability that they hadn’t shown since 2001 and that culminated in the (temporary) conquest of Kunduz in October.
Despite the dramatic improvement and numeric growth the ANSF have known, the country’s overall climate is still dominated by insecure, violence and instability as it was fourteen years ago.

NATO’s presence in Afghanistan, in fact, goes back to 2001, when in the aftermath of 9/11 – and in a moment of unprecedented fear – the UN Security Council authorized NATO to intervene in the Taliban-led country that had provided bin Laden with a safe haven for five years.
On 20 December 2001, ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) – made up of over 58,000 militaries from 40 different countries – became operative in Kabul, with the objectives of keeping the capital Taliban-free, training the regular Afghan Army, and supporting Karzai’s newly appointed government. Two years later, ISAF activity was extended beyond Kabul and remained active in various regions of the country until December 2014, when the mission was terminated. With the cessation of ISAF, its role was taken up by Resolute Mission, that seeks to enable the ANSF to provide security across Afghanistan autonomously.

If the intervention in Afghanistan was begun in 2001 under the banner of counter-terrorism and with the declared objective of defeating the Taliban and supporting Afghan Forces in their fight against them, then the attacks of 2015 are the proof that leaving Afghanistan now would mean abandoning a national security system that is not ready yet to sustain on its own the Taliban wave of terror and violence. It would mean abandoning to itself a country that hasn’t won yet its harshest war and hasn’t defeat yet its worst enemy.

NATO’s decision to extend its commitment in Afghanistan, then, cannot but be welcomed in the current security environment.
However, a point has to be made. For this protracted presence to be effective and meaningful, it is necessary to go beyond the pure military training, equipping and financing, and focus on a crucial but often forgotten element: the delicate and complex relationship between Afghan Forces and Afghan people – a relationship still too weak and too easily exploited by the Taliban to play their game.
NATO’s mission in Afghanistan, therefore, is two-fold: support on the military level and support on the civilian level.

On the military level, technical support, equipping (especially of the Afghan Air Force, which – despite being potentially crucial in the fight against the Taliban – is the least developed), training (of soldiers, of police forces and pilots), sensitization against desertion and education against corruption are of paramount importance to help the ANSF to sustain a Taliban offensive that not only has caused in 2015 the highest number of victims over the last decade, but has expanded beyond the borders of the southern provinces where those attacks used to be focused.

A lot of work, though, has to be made on the civilian level too.
One of the key-points of the Taliban’s strength, in fact, is that their activities are not limited to the battleground, but involve many sector of public interest such as education, economy, justice and health.
In many areas where the Taliban have been able to secure a steady presence and a direct control, they have provided to the population an alternative “shadow government” and alternative institutions that create a support basis of which the official government in Kabul and the ANSF pay the price.
This is particularly true in peripheral provinces, such as Kunduz. Here the ANSF has traditionally have a limited presence, and this has inevitably contributed to weaken in the eyes of the local population the legitimacy of an Afghan Army and an Afghan Police that was never able to provide security in a constant way. Such a lack of trust in the regular armed forces, has been easily exploited by the Taliban, who presented themselves as the only security providers and delegitimized the central government in Kabul by building madrassas and hospitals and by contributing to the locals’ economic activities. (At this respect, it’s emblematic the capacity of the Taliban in the South to exploit the unpopularity with which the government’s plan of poppy eradication was met, by siding against it and sparing to farmers in the provinces under their control the costs and the troubles of investing in new crops).
The Taliban have thus been able in many parts of the country to increase their credibility and legitimacy with local communities at the expense of the government.

Addressing these problematics is no less a challenge than dealing with the military component, as it requires to take into account complex dynamics at cultural, social and tribal level.
A good starting point, though, to increase the image and therefore the legitimacy of the Afghan Forces in the eyes of the population is to involve more – and more decisively – the Afghan Army and the Afghan Police in activities of public interest. Building a positive relationship between those forces and the population is a necessity that goes beyond regional, ethnical and tribal lines and that has to start from a direct engagement in the provision and protection of public services. Far from being involved in exclusive military operations, Afghan armed forces should actively take part in the building and functioning of institutions such as schools, religious centers, public offices, hospitals, polling stations…in order to appear as providers of stability and order as they should in any functioning society.

In this field, NATO can give its effective contribution by using its expertise in dealing with delicate civil and social realities, so as to create a bridge between a highly disillusioned Afghan population and armed forces that have to perceive their role not only in military terms but have to see themselves (and be seen) as forces that work alongside people in all sectors of every-day life.