The Islamic State In Afghanistan
THE CITIZEN BUREAU
NEW DELHI: In an underreported development, the Islamic State celebrated a significant victory in Afghanistan this week, as the group took control of some territory around Tora Bora, the former stronghold of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province.
The capture of the giant cave complex -- that once housed bin Laden -- came after what seems like a pitched battle with Taliban fighters, with local authorities saying that at least 12 Taliban militants were killed in the clash.
Although the Taliban remains the dominant militant group in Pakistan, with the Islamic State have a much weaker foothold, it is worth noting that the capture of the Tora Bora mountain range represents a major strategic victory for the latter. The huge caves give the militant group a remote and difficult to access base from which to launch attacks on the Taliban, as well as on the Afghan government and civilians at large.
As the war in Afghanistan continues, world attention has shifted to US policy in reference to the Taliban, especially as the group sees some of its biggest victories, coming to control large swathes of Afghan territory. The Islamic State in Afghanistan, meanwhile, has virtually disappeared from media headlines.
This represents quite a turnaround from years past, when the presence of the Islamic State in Afghanistan was the subject of media attention, with reports constantly overestimating the group’s presence in the region.
In reality, however, it is unclear what the exact relationship is between fighters swearing allegiance to the Islamic State (also known as Daesh) in Afghanistan and the parent group in Syria and Iraq. The question remains whether the Daesh parent group is actively involved in recruiting or training or is the Islamic State in Afghanistan an independent initiative that bears the name for the sake of bearing the name?
Reports of Daesh in Afghanistan began to emerge in 2014, when in September insurgents reported to be associated with the group battled Afghan security forces in the Arjistan district of Ghazni province. At the time, officials reported that the insurgents had raised the black flag of the Islamic State. However, the incident is now mired in controversy as the officials recanted their statements and said they had embellished the story so as to receive more resources.
In February 2015, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s Chief of Police denied that Daesh was present in the area, insisting that the insurgents were local Taliban fighters.
Nevertheless, Daesh announced its expansion into “Khorassan Province” and officially appointed Hafiz Saeed Khan as the Wali (Governor) of Khorassan. The group also appointed former Guantanamo Bay detainee and senior Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim as Khan’s deputy. The appointments and announcements followed a video released in January 2015 -- by disgruntled Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militants and a handful of little-known Afghan Taliban fighters -- that pledged allegiance to Daesh.
In the years since, increasing reports of Islamic State activity have been reported in Afghanistan. The group has often claimed responsibility for deadly attacks, including a deadly attack in Kabul last year that killed 80 people.
Whilst the above portrays a frightening scenario, with disgruntled Taliban fighters providing a suitable recruiting ground for the Islamic State’s aspirations in the region, the presence of the Syria and Iraq-based militant group in the South Asian country is still fairly limited.
While it is important to note the Islamic State’s presence in Afghanistan is still relatively small and that the Taliban continues to remain the main extremist group opposed to the government in Afghanistan, factors already outlined, namely the infighting, leadership fissures in the Taliban and the potential of peace talks with the Afghan government -- may give the Islamic State a boost.