SINCE dropping Mother of All Bombs (MOAB) against so-called Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan on April 13, IS has conducted six major terrorist attacks claiming more than 200 lives. It has also seized an opium rich Chaprahr district from Afghan Taliban in Nangarhar province of Afghanistan. Moreover, it has also tried to kill Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Afghanistan, Abdullah Abdullah in a suicide attack on June 3, 2017. These well coordinate attacks demonstrate the operational capabilities of IS in Afghanistan. Furthermore, it was also a display that IS is still operating with the same zeal and vigor in Afghanistan as it was before the dropping of MOAB.
Why IS is making its inroads in Afghanistan? How it has been able to secure strategic gains in the country despite its failure in Iraq and Syria? Sun Tzu says that “you have to pick your battles and battleground wisely, it will bring you success.” It seems that IS has chosen Afghanistan as its future battleground based on some strategic calculations, which ultimately serves as its command and control centre in the region. Firstly, following the foot prints of Al-Qaeda, the IS had considered Afghanistan as a safe haven for its recruitment, finances and export of ideology. Al-Qaeda had also relocated its headquarters from Sudan to Afghanistan due to conducive environment in the country for such non-state actors. Afghanistan is a war-torn country since late 1970s. Its black economy and opium smuggling are more than its formal economy. Conditions like weak state and black economy provide breeding ground to non-state actors. Secondly, non-state actors often gain strength in a power vacuum of any country. Growth of IS in Iraq and Afghanistan are two consequences of the US’ incomplete wars. It is consensus among scholars that US drawdown from Iraq allowed IS to grow in the country. The US committed same mistake in Afghanistan with the announcement of premature drawdown from the country. Afghan National Army was lacking capability of countering such forces. Hence, filling the power vacuum in Afghanistan was again a rational and well planned timely strategy, which helped IS to strengthen its position in Afghanistan.
Thirdly, such terrorist organisations have always faced challenge of finding large number of skillful and ideologically motivated human resource. No one knows exactly how many fighters now call themselves IS in Afghanistan, but officials estimate there are around three to five thousand. The main areas where they hold sway are districts in the eastern province of Nangarhar, which borders Pakistan, and parts of Zabul in the south and Kunduz in the north. It was a well calculated initiative of IS to launch its Khorasan Chapter in Afghanistan when some local commanders of Afghan Taliban were disgruntled with the policy approaches of their leadership towards central government. Most of the entities that now call themselves IS in Afghanistan are primarily disaffected Taliban members and insurgents from other groups who seized an opportunity to “rebrand” themselves as IS.
IS strategies in the Middle Eastern region render that the organisation has mastered itself in exploiting sectarian tension. Afghanistan also does have the same kinds of sectarian tension that IS can exploit as it did in Iraq and Syria. So far, it has targeted Afghan Hazaras (Shiites), which is a conscious tactical strategy to win hearts and minds of radical Afghans. It was the fault line, which was a source of attraction for IS in Afghanistan. To conclude, dropping MOABs, troops surge and increased military support of the US for Afghanistan will not help in curtailing IS in Afghanistan. IS is trying to gradually achieve strategic gains with rational strategic calculations. The only solution lies in Afghan national reconciliation process, where the both victims of IS, ie, Afghan government and Afghan Taliban may fight against this deadly terrorist organisation. Otherwise, its strengthened position can become stern security challenge for not only Afghanistan but also for its neighbouring countries.
— The writer works for Islamabad Policy Research Institute, a think-tank based in Islamabad.