The Islamic State and Afghanistan

by Fatemeh Aman

As Afghanistan continues its slide into fertile ground for the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), the spokesperson for the governor of the Pakistani border province of Nangarhar confirmed to the BBC on July 6 that drone attacks had led to the death of 50 members of the “New Group”—the name given to IS by local officials.

Syed Zafar Hashemi, deputy spokesman to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, recently confirmed the presence of IS in three of the country’s provinces: Nangarhar, Helmand, and Farah. Other reports indicate bloody clashes between IS and Taliban fighters. A member of the Provincial Council of Nangarhar, Zabihullah Zemari, links IS activities and the conflict between the armed groups to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. “They start soft and try to keep people satisfied. But once they have gained power, they start killing of civilians, soldiers, and government employees,” he told Radio Azadi.

General Dawlat Waziri, deputy spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, described the morale of Afghan forces as high and claimed full defeat of IS in Nangarhar province. However, the tension could not possibly be over. The presence of IS, even if it’s not as widespread as it is in Libya and Syria, should not be ignored or downplayed.

Hezb-e-Islami Announcement of Support for IS 

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former warlord and the last prime minister of Afghanistan before the Taliban took power in 1996 and sent him fleeing to Iran, recently called on his followers in Hezb-e-Islami to support IS in their clashes against the Taliban. This is the first time that an armed Afghan insurgent group has officially declared its support for IS. Will Hekmatyar’s alignment have a major impact on IS, and will it strengthen the Taliban’s leverage in its current negotiations with Kabul, which is increasingly concerned about IS?

Iran expelled Hekmatyar in 2002 for vowing to fight with what was then the newly established government of Afghanistan. Tehran’s move, which happened shortly after then-president Hamid Karzai’s visit to Iran, was seen as a gesture in support of Karzai’s government and potentially a conciliatory move toward Washington.

If it weren’t for George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech in early 2002, Iran would have placed Hekmatyar under house arrest and delivered him into Afghan custody, and ultimately, to American control. Instead, according to Ryan C. Crocker, a former US ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran facilitated his covert entry into Afghanistan. As a result, he was able to remain a source of insurgency in Afghanistan.

Hekmatyar’s announcement has already had a psychological impact. Insurgent groups in many places, including Afghanistan, try to exhibit their power and relevance through suicide attacks and bombings. This could be Hekmatyar’s goal. He needs publicity, and this strategy has worked in the past. His announcement created a backlash in social media and added to his unpopularity. Afghan media commentators pointed out that an “alliance” with Hekmatyar usually “does not bode well.” Hekmatyar announced his support for the Taliban in late 2001, and weeks later, the Taliban fell from power.

Atiqullah Amarkhel, a retired general and current military observer, told a local Afghan TV channel on July 6 that Hekmatyar has had very little control over his field commanders for the past decade. Amerkhel said he believed that Hekmatyar’s announcement of support for IS was more about self-promotion than actual insurgent strategy. It may serve him indirectly by strengthening the morale of his rank and file followers, because it demonstrates his power and ability to create fear.

Hekmatyar and Iran

During his five years of exile in Iran, Hekmatyar enjoyed generous support from the Iranian government. But he has never reconciled with it for almost handing him over to America in 2002. He recently said that Iran is a source of tension in Yemen and “another Israel” that is fueling conflicts in Islamic countries.

Hekmatyar is known for changing his positions and has allied with many different groups. As recently as January 2014, his party announced to the BBC that it wanted its followers to participate in that fall’s elections in Afghanistan. But shortly before that, Hekmatyar had declared that as long as foreign forces were present in Afghanistan, no election could be free.

His attempts to become a negotiation partner with the Afghan government did not bear fruit either. Some of his party leaders were absorbed into Afghanistan’s government—some in high positions — but not him. So it bothers him that, in contrast to the Taliban, he is not taken seriously. Therefore, he is desperately looking for relevance. His latest announcement seems to be an attempt to end his political isolation and attract attention. However, it could be yet another end for him if the negotiations between Taliban and Afghanistan government progress.

The Kunduz Factor

Another major strategic point for the insurgency is Kunduz province in northern Afghanistan—an important gateway to Central Asia and Hekmatyar’s birthplace. Although he once enjoyed power there, it’s been a long time since Hekmatyar has had any maneuverability in the north. Most of his former commanders joined the Afghan government long ago and have since been partners with the U.S. military in fighting the Taliban.

Kunduz is a merging point for many extremist groups whose interest lies more in Central Asia than Afghanistan. There is a mishmash of extremist groups such as ?izb at-Ta?r?r, Party of Liberation—which is also active in Uzbekistan—the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Islamic Movement of Tajikistan, and some Chechen groups. (The Taliban could be just following these groups because of their strong presence.) Kunduz is where the interests of countries like Russia and China converge.

Russia’s major concern may be the fact that Pakistan is pushing the militants out of its tribal region into Afghanistan. The existing IS threat—if combined with this phenomenon—will further exacerbate the concern that rising instability in Afghanistan could fuel the growth of militant movements in Central Asia.

On a recent visit to Moscow, former President Karzai warned that militants are using Afghanistan as a gateway to expand into Central Asia. Similarly, officials from post-Soviet states in Central Asia have warned repeatedly that the rise of instability in Afghanistan could fuel the growth of militant movements in their region.

It remains to be seen how credible Putin’s assessment was of the strength of IS in Afghanistan when he said: “I think that in 25 out of 34 provinces, we see the presence of the Islamic State.”

The Taliban’s interest may be limited to what’s happening in Afghanistan, but for other groups, the goal is all of Central Asia and establishing “Islamic States.”

Obviously, Russia’s own unhappy experience has taught it how challenging Afghanistan is, and now many other countries have learned that same lesson. It seems unlikely that Russia or China would deploy troops or forces into Afghanistan. There is, however, no doubt that they will do everything to secure their border and prevent insurgents from entering their territory.

IS has a good chance of making inroads into Afghanistan if it can impress the locals with the soft approach and cash handouts they’ve used elsewhere. Reports from Nangarhar—where IS has been fighting Taliban—suggest that they’ve already been successful there. At this point, the extent of insurgencies, especially the capability of a group like IS in Afghanistan, could be overhyped. One should not, however, ignore the power of insurgents when they seem unbreakable. Ironically, Hekmatyar knows this all too well. Kandahar falling to the Taliban in 1994 and their subsequent victories changed the game for Hekmatyar, and not in his favor. His men lost their morale. By September 1996, with the Taliban in control of Kabul, they had already switched their alliance to the winning side.

Photo: Gulbuddin Hekmatyar

Fatemeh Aman

Fatemeh Aman, a nonresident senior fellow at Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, has written on Iranian, Afghan, and other Middle Eastern affairs for over 20 years. She has worked and published as a journalist, and her writings have appeared in numerous publications, including Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst, Jane’s Intelligence Review, the Atlantic Council, and the Middle East Institute’s publications. She is the author of the Atlantic Council’s Water Dispute Escalating between Iran and Afghanistan (2016), and co-author of Iran, Afghanistan, and South Asia: Resolving Regional Sources of Instability (2013).


One Comment

  1. Calling ?izb at-Ta?r?r which has been a non-violent group for decades and which has branches in Australia, US, Netherlands and comparing it with terrorist groups shows how the author is not really well versed about the subject matter.

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