The Islamic State Reaches Into Afghanistan and Pakistan

5 MINS READJan 16, 2015 | 10:15 GMT
Islamic State Reaches Into Afghanistan and Pakistan
(A MAJEED/AFP/Getty Images)
A Pakistani man holds a pamphlet purportedly distributed by the Islamic State in Peshawar.

The establishment of the Khorasan chapter of the Islamic State in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region strengthens the group's image as a phenomenon with global reach. But the new chapter's links to the Islamic State are fragile, and it owes its existence more to the fragmentation of the cross-border Taliban movement than to anything the Islamic State has done. The Khorasan chapter, like other Islamic State affiliates beyond the Syrian-Iraqi battlespace, will be met with local resistance from jihadist forces and al Qaeda who see groups friendly toward the Islamic State as a challenge to their authority.

According to The News International, the largest English-language daily in Pakistan, the Islamic State announced the creation of a Khorasan chapter in a video released Jan. 13. (Khorasan theoretically includes Iran and Central Asia, in addition to Afghanistan and Pakistan, but so far the chapter is only functioning in the latter two countries.) In the video, a former Pakistani Taliban spokesman by the name of Shahidullah Shahid announced the names of the Islamic State commanders responsible for various parts of Afghanistan and revealed the chapter's new leader, a former Pakistani Taliban figure named Saeed Khan. Lending credibility to the announcement of the group's establishment, Afghan government officials have in recent days told Afghan media of the Islamic State's growing presence in several eastern and southern provinces, saying the group is fighting both Afghan security forces and Taliban militiamen.

In response to those reports, Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi sent an email to the Afghan Islamic Press agency, denouncing the reports as propaganda put forth by Kabul and Western governments. He denied that the Islamic State's black flags were flying in several areas where the Taliban are usually active, and insisted that all the "mujahideen" were fighting under the white flag of the Taliban movement and asserted that there was no infighting within the movement.

Taliban Fragmentation

Despite Ahmadi's claims to the contrary, there is growing evidence that elements from the Pakistani and, to a lesser extent, the Afghan Taliban have defected. It is understandable that the Pakistani Taliban would fracture; the group has tended toward transnationalism since its inception, and more recently it has suffered significant losses and struggled with internal dissension. Moreover, the Islamic State has eclipsed the Pakistani Taliban's erstwhile ally, al Qaeda, so alliance with the group seen as the rising star would be reasonable. The Pakistani Taliban have also been far more sectarian than their Afghan counterparts, and the Islamic State's blatant and aggressive anti-Shiite doctrine appeals to them.

While the Afghan Taliban are not hemorrhaging as badly as their Pakistani counterparts, they have had their share of fragmentation over the years. Initially, the source of the frictions was the absence of the group's founder, Mullah Mohammad Omar, who has been in hiding since 9/11. The separation has meant considerable autonomy for field commanders. The Haqqani faction best represents this trend.

But ever since the Taliban acknowledged that they were in talks with the United States in 2011, the group, whose hard-line elements oppose the talks, has become even less cohesive. Al Qaeda has tried for years to exploit this discord but it has had only moderate success. Besides, the talks have not produced much — only a political bureau in Qatar and a few tactical agreements.

However, with improved relations between Kabul and Islamabad, China's emergence as a key international interlocutor and the coming to power of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, the peace talks have been revived. These renewed efforts come at the same time that the Islamic State is gaining support among jihadists and sectarian militants on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The key is the Islamic State expansion in Southwest Asia — to the degree that it is actually happening — is taking place because of divisions among existing jihadists.

If the existing divisions in the Taliban movement become more acute, it still does not mean the Islamic State will take over the jihadist landscape in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Instead, it will be just one more name in an already saturated jihadist market. The ensuing competition will be bloody and will contribute to the overall weakening of jihadism, which is already under a great deal of pressure given the paradigm shift that has been in the making in Pakistan for a few years now and the fact that the Afghan Taliban want to be internationally recognized as an Afghan national force.

Afghan Taliban Position

Already the Afghan Taliban have been portraying themselves as a national jihadist force and distancing themselves from al Qaeda's transnational agenda. While al Qaeda did not challenge the Taliban — and in fact paid allegiance to its chief — the Islamic State, with its professed caliphate, poses a direct threat to the Taliban. Since Mullah Omar claims only to lead the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, he is theoretically lesser in stature than Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who claims to be caliph of all Muslims. The Islamic State was also critical of Mullah Omar and the Afghan Taliban in the latest edition of its Dabiq magazine.

Pledging allegiance to al-Baghdadi would weaken Mullah Omar's position and that of his movement. The Islamic State is unlikely to supplant the Afghan Taliban. However, the Islamic State's spread does create divisions in the jihadist landscape that undermine the position of the Taliban. Furthermore, the sectarian agenda of the Islamic State complicates the negotiations that the Taliban are having with the Afghan government and threatens to draw Iran into the country.

As groups aligned with the Islamic State grow in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in large part recruiting from the Taliban movement, we can expect jihadists in the region to fight back to retain their own influence. Eventually an intra-jihadist struggle could emerge far more intense than what is currently underway in Iraq and Syria, but the Islamic State will not dominate the area as it has in the Levant and Mesopotamia.

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