12 July 2015

Afghanistan: Darkening Shadows – Analysis

By Ajit Kumar Singh*
The Islamic State (IS) has started making significant territorial gains within war-torn Afghanistan. IS, according to the US Department of State’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2014, has emerged as the most dreaded global terror outfit, and has captured large parts of Syria and Iraq. According to June 2015 reports, fighters loyal to IS have seized sizeable territories in Afghanistan as well. Reports citing witnesses, who have fled from Nangarhar Province due to fierce clashes between forces loyal to IS and those loyal to the Afghan Taliban, claim that IS has pushed the Taliban out from areas previously under Taliban control. Haji Abdul Jan, a tribal elder from Achin District (Nangarhar Province) stated,
They (IS loyalists) came in on many white pickup trucks mounted with big machine guns and fought the Taliban. The Taliban could not resist and fled… Unlike the Taliban, they (IS) don’t force villagers to feed and house them. Instead, they have lots of cash in their pockets and spend it on food and luring young villagers to join them. Some villagers welcomed the new arrivals.

Further corroboration came from Malek Islam, the District Chief of Achin, who noted that IS fighters were “almost everywhere in the District” but were targeting the Taliban only and “not us”.

Official sources have now confirmed that forces loyal to IS have seized some territory from the Taliban in Nangarhar Province. Provincial Council chief Ahmad Ali Hazrat and Member of Parliament from Nangarhar Haji Hazrat Ali stated that, out of 21 Districts in the Province, the IS had seized some territory in at least six: Kot, Achin, Deh Bala, Naziyan, Rodat and Chaparhar. Local Army spokesman, Noman Atefi claimed that IS had established a presence in “seven or eight” Districts. Significantly, reports indicate that the fighting between the IS and Taliban was going on in Khogyani and Pachir Agam Districts.

The Taliban has also conceded that it has lost ground in Nangarhar, but attempts to downplay the influence of IS, even as it held the position that IS was not a rival. Taliban ‘spokesman’ Zabihullah Mujahid thus argued, “They are thieves and thugs … We will soon clear those areas and free the villagers.”

Nevertheless, official confirmation about IS presence also came from the Governor of Kunduz Province, Mohammad Omar Safi. Safi noted, on February 2, 2015, that nearly 70 IS militants had started activities in Dasht-i-Archi and Chardara Districts of the Province and a strategy was urgently needed to deal with IS.

Reports of IS making inroads into Afghanistan had started emerging subsequent to the June 2014 release of IS’ ‘world domination map’, which included Afghanistan in the projected ‘Islamic region’ of ‘Khorasan’.

Further, referring to the increasing IS presence within Afghanistan, Nicholas Haysom, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General, stated, on March 16, 2015,

Recent reports have indicated that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [ISIL, now known as IS] has established a foothold in Afghanistan. It is UNAMA’s [United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan] assessment that the group’s presence is of concern but that ISIL’s significance is not so much a function of its intrinsic capacities in the area but of its potential to offer an alternative flagpole to which otherwise isolated insurgent splinter groups can rally.

In his address to the United States (US) Congress on March 25, 2015, Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani warned, “From the west, Daesh [IS] is already sending advance guards to southern and western Afghanistan to test for vulnerabilities.”

Moreover, a June 24, 2015, report noted that, during a meeting with President Ashraf Ghani, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated, “…what is even more disturbing is that the so-called Islamic State is getting increasingly active in Afghanistan, consolidating its position there. I believe we are already seeing the Islamic State’s presence in 25 out of the 34 provinces.”

Meanwhile, on April 18, 2015, IS reportedly carried out its first terror attack inside Afghanistan. At least 33 people were killed and another 105 were injured in a suicide bomb blast outside a bank, where Government staff and military personnel were collecting their salaries, in the city of Jalalabad, the provincial capital of Nangarhar Province. IS ‘spokesperson’, Shahidullah Shahid, claiming responsibility online, identified the suicide bomber as Abu Muhammed Khurasani. An email from the outfit reportedly confirmed the claim and boasted of “sending 75 government servants to hell.”

Confirming that the IS was responsible for the attack, Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani declared, “Who claimed responsibility for the horrific attack? The Taliban did not claim responsibility for the attack, Daesh (IS) claimed responsibility for the attack.”

The spread of IS is an ominous development for Afghanistan, which is going through one of the most turbulent phases of terrorism. According to partial data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management (ICM), at least 8,275 persons, including 1,440 civilians, have already been killed in the Taliban-led insurgency across the country in 2015, with almost six months still to go in the year (all data till July 5, 2015). The total number of such fatalities was 10,574 through 2014, the highest number of fatalities in any year since 2007 (ICM data compiled from various sources is available since then).
Terrorism-related Fatalities in Afghanistan: 2007-2015












*Data till July 5, 2015

*ANA: 2007-2013: Source Brookings; 2014-15: Source ICM
** ANP: 2007-2012: Source Brookings; 2013-15: Source ICM
***ISAF: 2007-2015: Source ISAF website
**** Civilians: 2007 – 2015 (April): Source UNAMA; 2015 (May) onwards: Source ICM
****** Militants: 2007-2015: Source ICM

According to the latest data made available by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), at least 2,967 Afghan casualties were reported during the first four months of 2015. Mark Bowden the deputy head of the UNAMA and UN Secretary-General’s Deputy Special Representative in Afghanistan, disclosed on June 7, 2015, “As of 30 April, 1,989 Afghans were injured as a result of the conflict and 978 Afghan civilians killed, throughout the country.” Though no further official data is available, according to partial data compiled by the ICM, another 462 civilians have been killed since May 1, 2015 (data till July 5, 2015). 3,699 civilian fatalities were recorded in the country through 2014, the highest number of civilian fatalities in a year recorded by UNAMA since 2007. UNAMA began recording civilian fatalities in Afghanistan in 2007.

Fatalities among Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) have also increased considerably. Through 2014, a total of 770 deaths among Afghan Forces (413 ANA and 357 ANP personnel) were recorded, while the number of such fatalities already stands at 709 (517 ANA personnel and 192 ANP personnel) in the current year (till July 5).

The situation is bound to worsen further as Taliban has already launched its annual ‘Spring Offensive’. Indeed, in one of the most daring attacks ever, Taliban fighters stormed the Afghan Parliament compound on June 22, 2015. Though the attackers failed to enter the Parliament building, at least two people, a woman and a child, were killed during the attack, which ended with the killing of all the six attackers. None of the parliamentarians, who were meeting to consider the appointment of new Defence Minister Massoom Stanekzai, were harmed. Claiming the attack, Taliban ‘spokesman’ Zabihullah Mujahid declared, “We have launched an attack on Parliament as there was an important gathering to introduce the country’s Defence Minister.”

The Taliban also continues to control significant territory in the country. Despite efforts to project its ‘successes’, the Government concedes that the outfit has complete control over four districts across Afghanistan. Major General Mohammad Afzal Aman, chief of operations for the Ministry of Defence admitted on June 13, 2015, that that the Taliban controlled Baghran and Dishu in Helmand Province; Khak-e-Afghan in Zabul Province; and Nawa in Ghazni Province. General Aman asserted, “No other area except those four districts is under the enemy control now.”

With IS making inroads, the turf war between the two groups is likely to escalate. What is currently occurring, however, is simply a redistribution of existing rebel forces in Afghanistan under competing flags. While IS may bring a new character and level of brutality to its violence, it is unlikely to dramatically alter the structure and dynamics of insurgent violence in the country. Nevertheless, if IS allied formations tend to prevail over wider areas, the possibility of greater influence of the ‘global jihadi’ elements will significantly increase creating a rising potential for the entry of foreign fighters and the direct influence of IS leaders, commanders and strategic objectives. Such an eventuality would certainly bring new dangers to Afghanistan.

In view of the surge in terrorist activities and these other developments, the US has now has agreed to Afghanistan’s demand not to withdraw any US troops through 2015. US President Barack Obama had originally planned to cut the size of US Forces from their current strength of 9,800 to about 5,000 by the end of the 2015. However, he remains committed to withdrawing the bulk of American Forces by the end of 2016, leaving behind just a small force to guard the US Embassy.

Such a strategy would, however, simply repeat the cycle of disasters of the past, leaving Afghanistan isolated and in grave danger of consolidation by Islamist extremist forces. The threat, in such a situation, would not only be to Afghanistan, but to the wider region and, eventually, the world, once again creating a base and staging ground for international terrorists to mount attacks against their declared enemies everywhere. The West would not escape the consequences of such a development, even as it did not in the past. Significantly, in his meeting with Russian President Putin, President Ghani had noted, “The fact is, they [Islamic State] were not created for Afghanistan – they are using Afghanistan as a launching pad to spread their influence across the region.”

IS has already made deep inroads within Pakistan, and is emerging as a worry for security establishments in Bangladesh and India. Every country in the fragile and turbulent Asian region is now at risk of destabilization, in South Asia, both by continuous mischief by Pakistani state proxies and the global jihadists, and across the rest of the region by the rising influence of increasingly radicalized Islamist formations. Regrettably, no country or international coalition has yet evolved a coherent strategy to confront and neutralize the complex threat of Islamist extremism in its multifarious forms – both as instrument of state strategy and as the lunatic aspiration of millenarian terrorists.

*Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management

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