The exaggerated presence of the Islamic State in Afghanistan has been used by Russia, China and Iran as a pretext to intervene in the country's affairs.
Over the past few years, there have been many reports that the Islamic State (IS) for Afghanistan and Pakistan (“AfPak”), also known as Velayat Khorasan or (ISIL-K), has deepened its footprint in Afghanistan. The premise has been that IS’s main core based in Iraq and Syria wants to increase its presence globally by controlling areas along the AfPak frontier that have historical significance.
Initially, there were numerous groups associating themselves with the Islamic State’s toxic ideology as it was making inroads on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria. But in Afghanistan, after gaining early momentum in eastern parts of the country, ISIL-K capabilities and territorial claims began to wane as the group, unlike the Taliban, did not find indigenous support from local population.
There are many reasons why Velayat Khorasan cannot succeed in Afghanistan. First and foremost, the terrorist group is not an indigenous Afghan entity, and therefore it’s difficult to find support from the people, either in rural or urban areas.
Secondly, the Islamic State’s practice of accusing fellow Muslims of apostasy for deviating from IS’s violent interpretation of Islamic teachings does not sit well in Afghan society.
Thirdly, the leaderships of the Islamic State—whether its core in Iraq and Syria or its offshoot for Afghanistan and Pakistan—are not Afghans, as ISIL-K was formed by members of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an alliance of extremist groups fighting to overthrow the Pakistani government and other foreign fighters.
Finally, the AfPak region is not a suitable ground for proliferation of such rejectionist beliefs enforced by IS and its supporters. This region has been influenced by the Deobandi school of Islam rather than Takfiri version. The violent Takfiri idealogy has been the centerpiece of IS’s stratey in its attempts to establish a worldwide caliphate, while the Afghan insurgent groups, such as the Taliban and Haqqani Network, are parochial forces with no intentions abroad.
For all these reasons, Velayat Khorasan is viewed as an outside force, not only because of their brutality, but also for its ill treatment of people and the lack of respect for their culture and history.
From its very outset, ISIL-K struggled to establish istelf as a relevant and potent force in the Afghan theater. This was not only against the Afghan and U.S. forces, but also against the Taliban and other insurgents who viewed them as their archrivals. It is why Khorasan province has suffered some of its greatest losses between the years of 2015 and 2016, inflicted upon the group by Afghan and the U.S. forces. Furthermore, the presence of Afghan and the U.S. counter terrorism forces along the border have been significant in defeating Velayat Khorasan. This has made it difficult for the group to establish territory and expand itself deep into Afghanistan or Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Since its inception in the Afghanistan and Pakistan region, ISIL-K has undergone major changes. After significant losses on the battlefield, Velayat Khorasan capabilities, both in terms of strategy and operations, have now been considerably degraded. This has been achieved as a result of major operations by the Afghan national defense and security forces (ANDSF) supported by the U.S. in the eastern and northern parts of Afghanistan. While it’s still too early to predict that the group will be completely diminished in the region, its role and activities have been greatly exaggerated by the regional states.
In recent months, the presence of IS in Afghanistan has been overestimated so that it has created a major concern for regional powers, such as Russia, China and Iran. Fearing that Afghanistan may become another safe haven for the so called Islamic State fighters, these powers have tried to establish direct contacts with the Taliban in order to hedge against the potential risks. The strategy behind this move might be to avoid the scenarios of IS’s atrocities in Iraq and Syria being played out in Afghanistan.
While mutual fear of the Islamic State has brought the Taliban and regional powers together, it would be a miscalculation to rely on forces such as the Taliban, who have a proven history of extremism and support for international terrorism. Strengthening any radical and non-state groups in Afghanistan would not serve the interests of any neighboring countries.
On the other hand, Russia, China, and Iran’s attempts to reach out to the Afghan Taliban would not only complicate the already complex state of affairs in Afghanistan, but would also have an impact on the region’s alignment, with far-reaching geopolitical implications for the future. For instance, Russia has tried to establish contacts with the Taliban in order to hedge against the threat of IS as well as counter the growing influence of the U.S. in the region. According to Afghan sources, Iran has also formalized its relations with the Afghan Taliban by extending invitation to the group leaders to visit the country. Senior Afghan army and intelligence officials allege that the two countries have also provided small arms to the Taliban in provinces of Farah and Kunduz.
Lending legitimacy to terrorist organizations by undermining the Afghan government does not serve any good purpose either for Afghanistan or the region. Moreover, another significant concern is that although the regional states have publicly announced that their contacts with the insurgent groups are at the tactical level, there is a growing fear in Afghanistan that the relationships go far beyond that. According to Afghan officials, if there is fear of ISIL-K footprint in Afghanistan, it has to be directly shared and discussed with Afghan authorities, instead of colluding with forces that are hostile to its people and government. It’s also important that the illusion of the Islamic State in the region should not serve as a pretext for the neighboring states to establish relationships with terrorist groups such as the Afghan Taliban and other groups. This would be a strategic blunder and will have grave consequences for Afghanistan and beyond.
Therefore, in order to degrade and dismantle the Islamic State’s Khorasan province in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the regional states should work closely and jointly through a mechanism of state-to-state cooperative relationships. These relations would help to boost the military capabilities of the regional states in order to deny sanctuaries and expansion of territories for terrorist networks such as ISIL-K and others. To this end, regional powers and neighboring states alike, should support Afghanistan and its coalition partner’s stance in the fight against the Islamic State and other foreign fighters. In the meantime, it’s also crucial for these states to change their behavior with respect to the situation in Afghanistan and sincerely work with its government. This would prove beneficial for peace and security rather than building ties with the Taliban, who have been undermining the writ of the Afghan state during the last decade and half.