Terror outfits often expand their influence by merging into other groups or by cobbling together alliances. They essentially do it when their existence is threatened or for consolidation of power in an alien territory. It helps them to expand their scope, scale of operations, and influence. Moreover, it also helps them to foster human resource, wealth, technology and ideas. This is quite true for the Islamic State. Despite its so-called defeat in Iraq, the militant group has survived on the scores of loyalists left behind in Syria and parts of Iraq. It is now looking to expand its influence by shifting its headquarters and franchises elsewhere. Moreover, it is also seeking to regroup all their leftover fighters in the region.
Many experts and officials believe that the group still poses a potent threat to regional security. As Iranian intelligence minister stated that “ISIS has lost land, but has not surrendered its arms, and is looking for land in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia in order to revive the idea of an Islamic caliphate.” Likewise, General John Nicholson said that “right now we see them very focused on trying to establish their Khorasan caliphate inside Afghanistan.”
Furthermore, the statistics show that the estimated structure of IS in Afghanistan varies. According to an Afghan security official, there were estimated 4,000 IS fighters spread over Nangarhar province. Although the size of the group has fallen over a period of time, the support by the Afghan government and the US provides them the opportunity to expand their scope, scale and operations.
Yet, it is true that in the land of warlords, a foreign entity has never survived. ‘Alexander the Great,’ stuck by Afghan archers’ arrows, barely managed an escape through the Indus River. Later on, the Moguls, the British and the Soviets, were vanquished and humiliated. This is one of the main reasons why the IS may not get its way with the Afghan populace.
In addition, the IS’s momentum is constrained by the fierce competition provided by the local insurgent groups. The group has a weak and unacceptable radical ideology. According to a report by the Middle East Institute, its two former commanders said that they joined the IS for a steady monthly income rather than its ideological appeal. Unlike the IS, the Taliban enjoy massive support within the Afghan population, driven as it is by religious ideology. No other group had ever enjoyed such acceptability and support. Therefore, the IS has to compete with other local groups which will further make things difficult for it.
Even so, Afghanistan, a country with weak administrative set-up is quite vulnerable to terrorism. Sardar, a young barber living in Kunduz, said that Afghan government officials had asked him for hefty bribes to resolve a long-running family dispute over land. When this happened, he turned to the Taliban who in his home in Chahar Darah resolved the issue in 48 hours.
However, the weak physical, economic, social and political deprivations as well as a lack of assets and income, reflect the vulnerability that captures the uninsured risks. These factors offer incentives for insurgent and terrorist groups that exploit the grievances and vulnerabilities of the local populace to engineer and keep the strategic cause alive. This helps them in recruitment and funding and garners moral and political support. Such state of affairs provides them the variety to stick to the same cause, until another one looks more profitable.
On the other hand, the US and Afghan governments may like to support the IS, in response to Pakistan’s alleged support for the Afghan Taliban. Furthermore, it is very likely that the US will support the outfit to sabotage the CPEC, which is seen as the primary threat to US hegemony. It is too early however to predict the rise of IS in Afghanistan. But if that does happen it will surely complicate the regional security equation.
A version of this article appeared in The Express Tribune, newspaper.
Syed Sadam Hussain Shah is currently working at the Centre for International Strategic Studies, Islamabad. He holds masters in International Relations, from NDU. He has been awarded with merit scholarship twice a year. He has also participated as defence analyst at different national news channels. He has strong interest in Theories of International Relations, Counter Terrorism and the Nuclear Command & Control.