Sunday, 25 January 2015

Islamic State’s emergence in Afghanistan following US withdrawal, by Jan Agha Iqbal

Islamic State’s emergence in Afghanistan following US withdrawal, by Jan Agha Iqbal          24 January 2015
IS Leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, in his speech called “Volcanoes of Jihad” on November 13, last year said: “Glad tidings, O Muslims, for we give you good news by announcing the expansion of the Islamic State to new lands”. This demonstrates the expansionist theory of the Islamic State (IS), which outperformed all other extremist rivals in the region including Al-Qaeda and Al-Nusra front in the battlefield as well as in brutality and violence.
One and a half months later, President Obama marked the formal end of US combat in Afghanistan, and said that the longest US war ever was now history.
However, it was not history to terrorists. Not only they have not yet announced the end of their combat mission but also stepped up their coordinated and brutal attacks. Moreover, as the US moves out of Afghanistan, IS steps in to take control of insurgency against Afghanistan, as potential central command for all terrorist groups.
There are many speculations about the creation, speedy growth and financial and military strength of ISIS. However, there is little doubt that systematic support to extremist ideology by some in Gulf countries, and Pakistan in addition to rivalries between regional as well as international players in the region has contributed to the rise of this militant group.
Under these circumstances, can the US and its allies declare mission accomplished and trust that Afghanistan and for this purpose Pakistan, would not become the bases for terrorists to attack the West?
Premature US withdrawal and its impacts
Many political and military pundits had warned against the premature US withdrawal, leaving behind an undefeated and triumphant enemy. As a result, the desperate efforts by the US and the Afghan government to bring Taliban to serious negotiations remained unattended. This also vindicates the fact that the group with new energy and hope is determined to wait out the United States and seize power.
Moreover, supporters of Taliban and Hekmatyar Group have been gaining grounds inside the government without giving any concessions including renouncing violence, breaking with Al-Qaeda and accepting the constitution.
While the people in Afghanistan, particularly the vulnerable groups, have always been wary of the outcome of any peace deal with the hardliner terrorists, the rush to exit by Obama administration as many argue, has further rendered the US in a weaker position to negotiate.
In this case, the most appropriate exit strategy for the US would have been to leave the country after building stronger security institutions and economic foundations. It is only through strong Afghan security forces and sustained economy that the war against terrorists could be won.
Pakistan Army’s support of Taliban remains unabated
Carlotta Gall in her book, The Wrong Enemy argues that Pakistan army plays a double game by supporting the terrorists while enjoying the status of an ally with the United States and NATO. She states, “Pakistan, not Afghanistan, has been the true enemy.”

After the end of US war in Afghanistan the government of Pakistan and Pakistani religious groups including Maulana Fazlurrahman’s (the spiritual father of Taliban) Jamiat Ulema e Islam, and Jamaat Islami Pakistan, came to the open by giving interviews to defend Taliban and their jihad against Afghanistan which resulted in more suicide attacks. It would be no surprise if leaders of these two parties have already pledged their allegiance to IS leader in secret following the footsteps of Tehreek-e-Khilafat, and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi parties.

Pakistan’s policy of destabilizing Afghanistan has reached an undeniable level. To ensure a fundamental change in its policy the US needs to be persistent in its pressurizing Pakistan to sincerely stop supporting terrorists. This should include suspension of military aid and imposition of economic sanctions as a state sponsoring terrorism.
IS and its growing influence in Khorasan
The symbolic importance of Khorasan which refers to Afghanistan and parts of countries neighboring it, lies in few unauthentic sayings attributed to Prophet Muhammad, “Black flags will come from Khorasan, nothing shall turn them back until they are planted in Jerusalem”.
IS claims to have recruited 10,000 to 12,000 members in tribal areas on the Afghan-Pakistan border. According to some, Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost was recently named as the Islamic State-appointed governor of Khorasan.
Pamphlets distributed in Pakistani city of Peshawar invited citizens of both Afghanistan and Pakistan to pledge allegiance to Islamic States’ caliph. In Afghanistan, though there have been reports of clashes between Taliban fighters and ISIS militants but many among the Taliban and Al-Qaeda either have pledged to IS openly or clandestinely or plan to do so. In southern Zabul and Helmand provinces Mullah Abdul Rauf, a former Taliban commander has begun recruiting fighters for IS while in Kunar and Farah the Group has established training camps. Similarly in the Northern Afghanistan reports about their activities in many provinces have surfaced.
In Pakistan, a group of militants pledged their allegiance by beheading a man in an online video. These pledges continue throughout Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Al-Qaeda and Taliban may have some rivalries with IS, but the proximity between their ideology, goals and methodologies and tactics will bring them all under the black flag of IS.
Apart from being far more superior in strategic planning, resources, fighting and brutality, IS has also three distinct features that may help its acceptance in Afghanistan. First, it does not consider itself an extension of Al-Qaeda and Taliban which makes it attractive to those Afghans particularly in the north who were not part of Taliban and Al-Qaeda; second, it does not have allegiance to Pakistan’s military establishment; and third, unlike Taliban and Al-Qaeda it has started to reach different ethnic groups all over Afghanistan.
These factors along with government’s failure to secure peace stability, and deliver justice and economic opportunities will further create fertile ground for the increase of IS’s influence in Afghanistan.
IS, a common threat and a unifying factor
The rapid growth of new extremism in the form of IS in the region has surprisingly been downplayed by the government in Afghanistan. This approach will further aggravate the situation by allowing the group to make inroads and gain ground. This may not change the dynamics of the conflict, as some believe, but will definitely take the insurgency to a higher level with lesser or zero influence from Pakistan army.
In that case one may seriously question the impact of the peace talks with Taliban in the presence of IS militants on the ground.
For obvious reasons, IS poses serious threat to the security and stability of Afghanistan and Pakistan alike. This will improve the chances of both countries to stand together against a common enemy. Keeping in view the expansionist ideology of the group, China, Central Asian countries, Russia and even India could be part of a regional alliance against the ambitions and ideology of extremists.
If not preempted, the situation of Iraq and partly of Syria will repeat itself in Afghanistan as well as in Pakistan.
Setting the house in order
The Afghans must set their house in order as well. Ethnic balancing within the framework of unity government should remain a priority and a source of strength. Similarly the government should spare no effort to deliver peace and security, eliminate corruption in all its forms and manifestations and build self-sustaining financial institutions. In order for these improvements to take place, ample time and enough resources should be allocated.
Supporting Afghanistan’s unity government is the only option available for the U.S. and international community to achieve stability. Working under tremendous pressure from new rivalries, ethnic and political divisions, with a weak and dependent economy, and newly rebuilt security forces, makes the government in dire need of long-term commitment, support and assistance by the US and NATO.
To those who believe keeping more US forces for a longer period will help the government forces keep control of the country, this war is far from over yet.
*Mr. Jan Agha Iqbal is a former diplomat and analyst. He has served as representative of Afghanistan to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) as well as head of department in the same organization. Mr. Iqbal is an expert of diplomacy and international relations.

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