A year ago, the prospect of ISIL spreading into Afghanistan from its bastions in the Middle East was being greeted with scepticism by government officials and analysts alike. Despite the never-ending civil war, the consensus was that there was no room for a new entrant, particularly one as unwelcome to all the existing warring parties: the Afghan government, US-led Nato forces and, in particular, the insurgent Taliban.
On Monday, Afghan president Ashraf Ghani felt compelled to tell global leaders gathered at Davos that he would “bury” ISIL’s Khorasan affiliate in Afghanistan and neighbouring Iran and Pakistan. That is because ISIL has found its feet in Afghanistan over the past 12 months and has gathered the remnants of the Pakistani Taliban and various Al Qaeda affiliates who operated in North Waziristan. Analysts say ISIL is a serious challenger for control of Nangarhar province.
According to Russian and US estimates, the strength of ISIL Khorasan is no more than 3,500 fighters, and it is certainly in no position to create a territorial caliphate in Afghanistan. That may not be many in comparison to the Taliban’s estimated 30,000 to 40,000 fighters, but the numbers are misleading. Most of Afghanistan is described by military analysts as “uncontested” territory. That is precisely why Pakistani militants, in tactical alliance with ISIL Khorasan, have been able to seize territory in eastern provinces previously assumed to be Taliban-friendly.
Time is on the side of ISIL Khorasan. The militant underworld of Afghanistan and Pakistan is no longer bound by unquestioning loyalty either to the Taliban founder, Mullah Omar, or to Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. The latter’s successor, Ayman Al Zawahiri, has never been popular among Al Qaeda’s fighting men, and the dubious circumstances in which Mullah Akhtar Mansoor kept Omar’s death a secret for more than two years still rankles the insurgency’s ranks.The longer the conflict goes on in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the more time ISIL will have to attract followers through its vile acts of marketing. According to ranking militants I met in December, ISIL has already lured 80 per cent of Al Qaeda’s seasoned commanders in Afghanistan and Pakistan, necessitating a counter-recruitment campaign by the Taliban. It may be just a matter of time before ISIL absorbs those organisations altogether, they warned.
The endgame, it seems, is that ISIL’s Raqqa-based leadership is building a new home along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border for if and when it is squeezed out of Iraq and Syria. Afghanistan is certainly not unfamiliar to associates of Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, many of whom lived there for much of the 1990s.
That seemingly improbable prospect has certainly given fresh impetus to the collective diplomatic push of China, Pakistan and the US to revive direct peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The consensus among analysts is that the talks, expected to resume in Islamabad on February 6, will not make much progress because of the influence of hardliners within Kabul and the Taliban.
That said, there has been an upsurge in CIA drone strikes against ISIL targets in Nangarhar, many of them conducted on the basis of intelligence provided by the Pakistani military. Much of that Pakistani intelligence has been provided by the Taliban which, until very recently, was fighting ISIL forces alone. It would not be surprising to see that arrangement expanded to increase the pressure on ISIL positions in Nangarhar, perhaps in the form of Afghan security forces deployed there on a flank that would not bring them into contact with the Taliban.
Strange as all this might sound, historians argeethat Afghanistan has long been a country of ever-shifting allegiances and the strangest of bedfellows.
Tom Hussain is Asia-Pacific Editor of The World Weekly website