ISIS in Afghanistan?

An article in Foreign Affairs argues that ISIS will fail in attempting to extend to Afghanistan, “January 2015, Kurdish forces drove the so-called Islamic State (also known as ISIS) out of Kobani, a city previously considered to be one of the group’s strongholds. At the time, ISIS released an audio statement to restore the morale of its beleaguered fighters. In it, spokesman Abu Muhammed al-Adnani reassured ISIS foot soldiers that the group was “becoming stronger and stronger” and “taking confident steps with no doubt or hesitation.” Adnani then dropped a bombshell: ISIS had added Wilayat Khorasan—a territory encompassing Afghanistan and Pakistan—to its growing list of international outposts. Since the establishment of Wilayat Khorasan, Afghanistan has become central to ISIS’ campaign for global expansion. But challenges in Afghanistan have plagued the group from the very start”.

The piece continues, “After more than two decades of conflict, the Taliban is deeply entrenched in Afghanistan’s militant communities. As an indigenous force, it can draw on tribal relationships and ethnic loyalties, an inherent advantage over ISIS. And although the Taliban may not be particularly savvy on social media, the group understands the needs and desires of Afghanistan’s jihadists in ways that ISIS can’t”.

The writers note that ISIS have established a radio station and “In its war of words in Afghanistan, ISIS has attacked the Taliban with a smear campaign that would make political operatives and spin doctors proud. The group has relentlessly challenged the Taliban’s jihadist credentials, implying that it caters to regional state governments”.

The piece goes on to argue that “ISIS has also challenged the legitimacy of the Taliban leadership. In the months before the Taliban announced the death of leader Mullah Omar, ISIS waged a campaign against the one-eyed Taliban emir. The tenth issue of Dabiq, published in July 2015, featured a lengthy comparison of Omar and ISIS emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in which ISIS claimed that Omar’s “nationalist” worldview hindered efforts to “unify the ranks of the Muslims all around the world.” When the Taliban announced Omar’s death in July 2015, ISIS shifted the focus of its criticism to Omar’s successor, Mullah Akhtar Mansour. In a video released in August 2015, ISIS accused Mansour of being an ally of Iran. The Taliban’s multiyear cover-up of Omar’s death (although the Taliban finally announced his death in 2015, it is believed that he had died in 2013) provided ISIS’ social media army with another opportunity to demean the Taliban and al Qaeda. Immediately after the Taliban announced Omar’s death, ISIS supporters on Twitter began feverishly posting tweets in Arabic with the hashtag #talibanslie, accusing the group of being untrustworthy. Similarly, Abu Maysarah al-Shami, an ISIS sharia official, wrote a damning article in which he accused the Taliban of deceiving the ummah (global Muslim population) for years”.

Interestingly they write “For all of ISIS’ attempts to besmirch the Taliban, they have yet to capitalize on the group’s internal discord. In fact, the recent establishment of a Taliban splinter faction, composed of several prominent Taliban commanders, amounts to a refutation of ISIS in Afghanistan. Although many reports have indicated that the Taliban faction and ISIS have established an alliance, the splinter group has actually rejected collaboration with ISIS in Afghanistan. Many of ISIS’ troubles in Afghanistan are of the group’s own making. ISIS has undermined its prospects by criticizing Pashtunwali, the tribal code to which Pashtuns—the majority of the Taliban fighting force—adhere. In Dabiq, ISIS also criticized Deobandi Islam, the Taliban’s prevailing school of Islamic thought. It is therefore not surprising that the only ISIS foothold in Afghanistan is in Nangarhar Province, which, unlike most other provinces, has a significant number of adherents to Salafism, the Islamic methodology practiced by ISIS“.

Underlinging their point they add  that ISIS “has suffered its own internal fracturing in Afghanistan. In late October 2015, ISIS deputy commander (and former Guantánamo Bay detainee) Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost announced that he was abandoning his ties with Hafiz Saeed Khan, Wilayat Khorasan’s emir, whom Dost accused of committing atrocities against innocent Afghan civilians. Although Dost vowed that he would remain loyal to ISIS, the dispute is a poor sign for ISIS’ long-term prospects. Further, even though ISIS pulled off spectacular events in Paris, the Sinai Peninsula, and elsewhere, these attacks are not likely to matter much to Afghan militants, most of whom are focused primarily on Afghanistan”.

The piece concludes “Outside of Afghanistan, ISIS’s efforts to peel militants away from al Qaeda have yielded mixed results. Though the group has managed to acquire pledges of allegiance from Boko Haram and the Sinai Peninsula’s Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, two groups that were previously in al Qaeda’s orbit, no official al Qaeda affiliates have defected to ISIS. In fact, groups like al Shabab and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula continue to rebuff ISIS’ expansion efforts, with al Shabab aggressively targeting ISIS sympathisers in Somalia. ISIS’ struggles thus far suggest that it will need more than a snappy propaganda initiative to chip away at the al Qaeda network. ISIS has struggled to navigate Afghanistan’s complex web of tribal, ethnic, and religious relationships. In other words, propaganda and spin can only take ISIS so far in Afghanistan. Until the group’s leaders better understand the complex politics of Afghanistan, they may find themselves stymied in the graveyard of empires”.

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