Daesh or Islamic State (IS), known locally as the Islamic State in Khorasan (ISIK), is relatively a new entrant in the Afghan power struggle besides Al Qaeda, US/NATO, Afghan Security Forces and the CIA-funded patchwork of local militias — the Orbaki militias. These militias were raised by the CIA’s paramilitary division also called the Ground Force, coinciding with the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan. These militias are still maintained by the CIA and operate outside the normal authority of the Afghan government and national army and police forces.
Daesh first appeared on the Afghan scene in 2014 and was dismissed by Pentagon as a breakaway group of the Pakistani Taliban with limited operational ability. Today, it is estimated to be 3,000 strong and is firmly entrenched in the rural areas of eastern Afghanistan — mainly in the Kunar, Nangarhar, Nuristan and Laghman provinces. Their incursions in the Jowzjan province in 2018 were defeated by the Taliban alongside — but not in coordination with — bombing by US aircraft. More recently, IS cells have appeared in Kunduz in the north, and in Herat in the west. Their unit in Kabul is one of the most deadly as it launched 24 attacks in Kabul alone in 2018, outpacing the Haqqani Network. Reportedly the April 7, 2017 terrorist attack in Stockholm by Rakhmat Akilov (an Uzbek) that left five people dead was inspired by an IS leader in Nangarhar. A recently released UN report holds the ISIK responsible for 423 out of the 3,812 civilian deaths or 11% of the casualties and injuries in the first six months of 2019.
Primarily considered a loose coalition of the Pakistani Taliban, ISIK now comprises fighters from all over the region including Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and veterans of Iraq and Syria. The group is “able to out-recruit its casualties” and aims at ramping up its recruitment drive among the Afghan youth and the disenfranchised Taliban. Their fighters are reportedly paid well by Afghan standards, “in some regions by hundreds of dollars”.
Reportedly, it is well funded through illicit smuggling of timber, drugs, raw earth material like lapis lazuli — mined in eastern Afghanistan — and other sources of revenues like extortion, etc. Initially it was helped out financially by leadership in the Middle East, but now it is considered self-sufficient.
In 2018, General Austin S Miller, the then commander of the American-led mission in Afghanistan, decided to form a Special Operations Task Force led by American troops working alongside Afghan police special units to eliminate IS fighters. This task force was to be the “foundation for a counterterrorism force left behind”, as and when the Afghan peace agreement would be reached. The Taliban however, opposed the idea in the Doha parleys, insisting they could handle and defeat IS forces. Some detractors like Abdul Rahim Muslimdost, an Islamist cleric jailed in Pakistan and detained at Guantánamo Bay, think ISIK is Pakistan’s creation, while American officials disagree.
US intelligence officials, surprisingly, consider the territory controlled by ISIK in eastern Afghanistan, along the border with Pakistan, of less strategic importance citing that this lawless area was never truly controlled by the occupation forces in the first place. Interestingly, Pentagon officials had been saying as early as 2017, that they could not defeat the IS forces in these remote reaches of Afghanistan. And effective since the first half of 2019, the US has officially changed its strategy to “containment” for IS controlled areas; whereas elsewhere in Afghanistan the US strategy is “counterinsurgency”.
As reported, the intelligence assessment about the size and effectiveness of ISIK has been ostensibly divergent between the Pentagon and National Security Agency (NSA)/CIA, in part because the spy agencies’ assessments are technology-reliant (drones, electronic eavesdropping on communication, signal interception, etc.), which is less accurate than HUMINT (human intelligence) and hence prone to misinterpretation. Military, on the other hand, has the advantage of contact intelligence — the more accurate HUMINT. The US military considers IS adept at swelling its numbers when needed, therefore making it a potent threat. Such upgradation of the IS threat by the American military is also considered hedging against repeating an intelligence failure in 2015, when a good-sized Al Qaeda training camp was unexpectedly discovered in rural Kandahar.
Critiques also consider the almost overnight appearance of ISIK in the Afghan scene and US reluctance to face up to this threat squarely, as a covert effort to weaken the Taliban. The Taliban, enfeebled after fighting ISIK are considered more agreeable to negotiate. If we connect the dots — divergence on assessment between the NSA/CIA and the US military; intelligence failure and inaction; change of strategy to “containment” in IS controlled eastern Afghanistan and downgrading the area’s geo-strategic importance — a different picture begins to emerge. The widely believed theory is that ISIK is a US/CIA creation, formed by the US deep state and Afghan Government, as a second line of defence (first being the Orbaki militias) against a resurgent Taliban, in order to ensure residual US leverage, with or without a peace deal. Daesh was also created, presumably, to keep the Chinese economic ambitions in Afghanistan under check, besides over-watching Pakistani nuclear capability; hence it being planted next to Pakistan. That the US deep state is not interested in Afghan peace and a complete withdrawal of US forces and seeks from the Taliban, a permanent or scheduled presence of the US military and intelligence assets, in return for funding, subsequently required for Afghanistan’s reconstruction and development.
Another reasoning lending credence to this theory is the presence of so many pan-Islamic groups: Taliban, Al Qaeda and now ISIK, with a similar ideology and goals on Afghan soil. Traditionally such groups complement one another; the Al Qaeda and Taliban relationship in the past being a case in point. ISIK on the other hand is a challenger and competitor to the Taliban authority. Additionally, the ISIK lacks the organisational and bureaucratic robustness of the IS proper, leaving its claims of affiliation with the parent group questionable. In the murky waters of conflict, many soldiers of fortune try to fish.
Afghanistan, unfortunately, has been a testing lab for all sorts of ideas and theories, weapons and equipment, and experiments in nation building and state development. The cited suspicions about the origins, aims and objectives of the ISIK leave many unanswered questions. Will Afghanistan, like so many transient influences in its difficult history, be able to sidestep the ISIK challenge? If Taliban optimism is any guide, it would be a short work for them and a big disappointment for its masters and handlers. Because in this conflict, even the safety of NATO/US intra-base logistics lines is dependent on handsome cash pay-outs to the Taliban as a “routine practice”.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 22nd, 2019.