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.