ISIS is in Afghanistan, But Who Are They Really? | ISIS in Afghanistan | FRONTLINE | PBS

It’s solely been a year-and-a-half because the terrorist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria seized considered one of Iraq’s largest cities and declared a caliphate within the swathes of territory it held in each international locations. Since then, overseas fighters have flocked to hitch the battle and ISIS’ chief, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has impressed pledges of allegiance from aspiring insurgents and breakaway factions of militant teams in international locations akin to Egypt, Yemen and Libya, in addition to from well-established teams like Nigeria’s Boko Haram.

Now, it seems ISIS-allied fighters are gaining a foothold in Afghanistan as effectively. However who’re they actually? Do they take orders from ISIS’ management in Iraq and Syria? And will their ideology and grasp on territory unfold prefer it did in Iraq and Syria? Here’s what three consultants needed to say.

Who’s “ISIS” in Afghanistan?

James Cunningham, who served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2012 till Dec. 2014, says he first heard rumors of ISIS in Afghanistan as his time period was ending. “Simply as I used to be on the point of go away, there have been rumors, however nothing very strong — expressions of concern that ISIS was beginning to make contact with Afghans and Pakistanis, and making an attempt to recruit folks to return to the battle in Syria and Iraq.”

Nonetheless, consultants say that the entities that now name themselves ISIS in Afghanistan should not fighters from Iraq or Syria. Relatively, they’re primarily disaffected Taliban members and insurgents from different teams who seized a chance to “rebrand” themselves as ISIS.

“It’s necessary to take a look at what we imply after we say ISIS,” says Anand Gopal, writer of No Good Males Among the many Dwelling: America, The Taliban, and the Battle By means of Afghan Eyes, “as a result of these have been teams that have been disgruntled they usually basically rebranded themselves as a means of reinvigorating their group or faction, and attracting funding.”

“There’s been elevated dissatisfaction amongst sure parts of the Taliban, and with the media speaking about ISIS on a regular basis and the Afghan authorities taking part in up the thought of ISIS as a means of maintaining the US , all of that kind of set the bottom for the teams to rebrand themselves,” Gopal says.

Among the many teams which have taken up ISIS’ black flag in Afghanistan are factions of the Pakistani Taliban, referred to as Tehrik-i-Taliban, or TTP; the Pakistani militant group Lashkar e Taiba; and the Islamic Motion of Uzbekistan. At the moment, the leaders of ISIS in Afghanistan are predominantly former Pakistani Taliban members.

Some members and commanders of the Afghan Taliban have additionally defected, highlighting rising disaffection inside the group, which regardless of having the ability to briefly take and maintain the provincial capital of Kunduz in September, has skilled fragmentation and turmoil during the last a number of months. Some defectors started becoming a member of ISIS due to the lengthy absence of Mullah Omar, the Taliban chief whose stature and mystique held the disparate group collectively. The affirmation of his demise in July has solely elevated defections. Others, in the meantime, have been pushed to ISIS by disagreements over whether or not the Taliban ought to participate in peace talks with the Afghan authorities.

“The motivations for folks to wish to take up arms and battle in opposition to the Afghan state haven’t diminished,” Gopal says. “You have got the management saying, effectively, it’s time to barter, time to take a look at peace.” The teams which have rebranded themselves as ISIS are in a position to step in, Gopal says, and declare, “‘We’re not the Taliban … we’re not going to enter these negotiations. We’re a part of this world motion now that’s been so profitable in Iraq and Syria.”

Nobody is aware of precisely what number of fighters now name themselves ISIS in Afghanistan, however officers estimate there are round a thousand. The primary areas the place they maintain sway are districts within the jap province of Nangarhar, which borders Pakistan, and elements of Zabul within the south and Kunduz within the north. By July, it was claimed that ISIS had defeated the Taliban in three districts in Nangarhar — Achin, Shinwar and Khogyani. However the Taliban has been pushing again, leaving civilians caught in the midst of preventing between each teams. The mid-year tally of civilian casualties in Afghanistan hit a file excessive in 2015, because the United Nations began counting in 2009 — 1,592 lifeless, 3,329 injured.

Do they take orders from or have ties to ISIS in Iraq and Syria?

Whereas a spokesman for ISIS central in Iraq and Syria introduced the institution of an Afghan affiliate in January, consultants say there isn’t a lot proof of centralized command and management hyperlinks between fighters in Afghanistan and the management in Iraq and Syria but.

“They embrace the label, they usually swear allegiance to Baghdadi, however it doesn’t seem there may be any route, management or directions coming from Syria, Iraq or Baghdadi,” explains Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow on the Brookings Establishment.

“If you happen to take a look at the way in which wherein this group has operated on the bottom, it operates very otherwise from the ISIS in Iraq and Syria,” Gopal says. “They’re not appearing like ISIS central … They’re not destroying shrines and doing issues in opposition to native tradition.”

Nonetheless, that might change, and the issues to control are capabilities or behaviors of the group altering over time, consultants say.

Might they unfold like ISIS in Iraq and Syria?

The startlingly speedy rise of ISIS rattled Western officers. In 2011, the group emerged from the ashes of Al Qaeda in Iraq in 2011 and gained recruits and preventing expertise within the Syrian civil battle earlier than launching a lightning offensive on Mosul and establishing its caliphate. The group took benefit of energy vacuums and weakened state safety forces in Syria and Iraq, in addition to harnessing sectarian tensions in Sunni majority areas.

With fighters in Afghanistan now flying the flag of ISIS too, the pure concern is whether or not what occurred in Iraq and Syria may occur in Afghanistan.

It’s nonetheless to early to inform, consultants acknowledge, however there are basic variations between ISIS in Iraq and Syria and the state of affairs in Afghanistan that might impede ISIS’ unfold within the latter.

ISIS’ ideology, which is Salafist, is antithetical to the Taliban’s ideology, which has origins in Sufism and Deobandi. Salafist ideology is a really austere interpretation of Islam that’s “purported to harken again to the way in which they think about the Prophet lived,” Gopal says. Nonetheless, in Afghanistan folks worship holy shrines and saints, and the beliefs are extra mystical. “That’s the way in which Islam capabilities in southern Afghanistan, however it’s all thought-about heretical by the Salafists.” These ideological variations make it tougher to recruit and acquire the acceptance of the general public.

Gopal presents the instance of an Afghan Taliban commander who allied with ISIS and was killed in a drone strike. Mullah Raouf Khadim had a number of problem recruiting folks in Afghanistan, as a result of “he went again to his village and instructed folks, ‘You shouldn’t worship graves. You shouldn’t go to the holy males.’ They usually all thought he was loopy.” He was solely in a position to get folks to return round after mollifying a few of the Salafist interpretations.

Afghanistan additionally doesn’t have the identical sorts of sectarian tensions that ISIS can exploit, Felbab-Brown factors out. “Though the Pashtuns usually really feel excluded from the federal government, and mobilizing alongside the strains of Pashtun ethnicity has been an element, there’s already an alternate that exists — the Taliban — and that’s the massive distinction in comparison with Iraq and Syria.” Whereas Syria’s militias have been fractious, and Iraq’s sectarian tensions boiled over, in Afghanistan “you will have a pan-Afghan, nationwide, potent, long-established insurgency” within the Taliban. Thus far, the fiercest preventing has not been between ISIS and authorities safety forces, however between ISIS and the Taliban.

ISIS and the Taliban not spreading in Afghanistan can be contingent upon the soundness of the federal government and the energy of Afghan safety forces, who appeared to wrestle in regaining management of Kunduz when the Taliban briefly overran it for 2 weeks in September.

To assist forestall their unfold, President Barack Obama introduced final month that the US would preserve 9,800 troops in Afghanistan by way of 2016, and preserve about 5,500 going into 2017. In saying the choice, Obama mentioned, “I cannot permit Afghanistan for use as protected haven for terrorists to assault our nation once more.”

Withdrawing all troops as deliberate, given the present state of affairs, “would have led to a really harmful state of affairs for the area and for us,” Cunningham, who now serves because the Khalilzad Chair on Afghanistan on the Atlantic Council, says. “I feel the result would have been one wherein the Afghans weren’t in a position to maintain their safety effort in the way in which it wanted to be carried out.”

Such issues have solely grown within the wake of the Nov. 13 assault on Paris that killed no less than 129 folks — an assault that Iraqi intelligence urged was no less than partially deliberate in Raqqa, ISIS’ self-appointed capital in Syria. As Cunningham says, if the rising model of ISIS in Afghanistan isn’t in some way defeated, the hazard is that “there’ll develop a extra natural reference to ISIS because it exists in Syria and Iraq.”

Priyanka Boghani

Priyanka Boghani, Deputy Digital Editor, FRONTLINE

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