By Dr Huma Baqai
December 16, 2017
ISIS (Daesh) is an acronym for so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. It gained prominence after it rapidly captured large territories in both these countries and declared a caliphate in 2014. The group controlled more than 34,000 square miles of territory stretching from the Mediterranean coast to south of Baghdad. Perhaps the only terror organization that had land and financial holdings and fought back tooth and nail for to maintain territorial control. The campaign to eradicate the Islamic State took more than three years and about 25,000 coalition airstrikes. ISIS’ rise and the world’s military response led to the displacement of more than 3.2 million people, according to the United Nations.
Iraq and Syria have officially been liberated from the clutches of ISIS. A third of Iraq was under ISIS control for three years. Which came to an end in July 2017. In the same month Russia claimed that its forces had destroyed all ISIS strong hold in Syria; following a bombing campaign. ISIS has lost land but it has not surrendered its arms. It is also actively looking for land holdings in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia to revive the idea of Islamic Caliphate. ISIS has blatantly claimed responsibility over the past year for several major attacks in Afghanistan. Its presence now is much more entrenched then two years ago when it was trying to establishing itself in the country.
The urge in the ISIS camps to find a tangible base is real. The operations from existing bases have been curtailed. Surviving militants are fleeing Syria and Iraq, with Afghanistan becoming the most probable foothold for it. Around 200 fighters, some from Syria joined the ISIS afflicted Jowzjan province of Afghanistan in November 2017.
They are establishing both military presence, and social control, collecting taxes and recruiting men, women and children said Clinton Forrest from the Washington based Institute for the Study of War (ISW). They are flocking in from Tajiskistan, Chechnya and even France and Sudan. No push back or resistance mechanism is in place. They are free to recruit from towns and villages, seemingly undeterred by the fall of the physical Caliphate. Moreover, many groups fighting under the ISIS flag are also active in the Nangarhar Province and in the north of Afghanistan.
According to the Pentagon, ISIS number fewer than 1000 in Afghanistan. But the growing numbers and presence of foreign fighters among them indicated that ISIS “seeks to create an external operations node for new waves of global attacks (ISW).
However, Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, an expert on Jihadist groups while commenting on ISIS presence, which also includes foreigner fighters in Afghanistan. Categorically said, “the groups natural home is Iraq and Syria, but many of the fighters are either escaping or moving to other battle field for ISIS, where they might prove more useful. General John Nicholson the head of US forces in Afghanistan, has vowed the group will be annihilated. Washington had dropped the “Mother of all Bombs” on ISIS in Nangarhar in the spring of 2017.
Unfortunately, the number of fighters is growing, testify villagers, and there are no signs of pro-government forces in the district. “There is no government here” says a local. Hamid Karzai, in his recent interview with Russia today said that, “ISIS in Afghanistan was proliferating under the very nose of American Security apparatus. Speculations are that America may use ISIS elements against Taliban and against the interests of regional adversaries and their allies.”
If this is true, it is a disaster for both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pitching one evil against another only complicates the conflict matrix and resolves nothing. Pakistan as is has serious concerns, with regard to Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and patronization of Balochistan militants against it from Afghanistan territory.
Security challenges in Afghanistan are proving to be insurmountable for Americans. The upswing in Taliban attacks continued while Tillerson was in Afghanistan on his official visit to South Asia. ISIS and Taliban are both Sunni terrorist groups, have an uneasy relationship, having fought each other till a truce was reached to fight the common enemy. However, this could break any time. 2018 the security situation in Afghanistan may become more precarious, having serious implications for Pakistan and the region.
Dr Huma Baqai is Associate Professor, Dept of Social Sciences & Liberal Arts at IBA Karachi.