by Claudio Bertolotti
- Self-claiming ISIS militants killed a Taliban commander during a clash in the Charkh province. The governor of northeastern Kunduz stated that there were about 70 ISIS militants in the province.
- Afghan treasury chief stated that the new Afghan finance minister discussed a plan with the International Monetary Fund to privatize the New Kabul Bank - formed after the original Kabul Bank collapsed in 2010 generating a financial crisis in the country – that has lost around $56 million in the last four years
- Afghan President Ashraf Ghani stated that ISIS views Afghanistan as a key component in its broader goal to establish a caliphate in the Middle East
- United States delays troops withdrawal from Afghanistan. The United States will keep the 9,800 troops currently in Afghanistan on the ground through the end of the year, rather than reducing the number to 5,500 as planned; the U.S. military bases in the cities of Kandahar and Jalalabad are likely to remain open beyond the end of 2015. US President pledged to continue to conduct targeted counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan.
- President Ghani visits the United States: Ghani declared a new phase in relations between Afghanistan and the United States, stressing his commitment to combating militancy and making Afghanistan a stable democracy.
- A group of Uzbeks in northern Afghanistan claiming to be from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) pledged their allegiance to ISIS’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
- UN reports 6,500 foreign militants fighting in Afghanistan have links to Al-Qaeda and ISIS.
- At least 17 people were killed and about 40 were injured, including a prominent parliamentarian, on Thursday in a suicide bombing in Afghanistan’s Khost province.- Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov promised Russian support to Afghanistan during a visit by Afghan National Security Advisor Muhammad Hanif Atmar to Moscow. Lavrov stated that Russia is ready to help Afghanistan in stabilizing its current complex conditions, and to cooperate with Afghanistan's allies in fighting against terrorism and counter narcotics. Previously Lavrov criticized the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF) for being unable to provide security; moreover Lavrov stated that ISAF has failed to handle the set goals because terrorism in the country has not been unrooted and drug trafficking has increased.
As reaction to the expansion of the Islamic State (ISIS, also known as Daesh) in the Indian Subcontinent, on September 2014 al-Qaeda has announced the establishment of the jihadi new wing, called ‘Qaedat al-Jihad in the Indian Subcontinent’ (AQIS, al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent) – the Indian wing that would spread Islamic rule and raise the jihad across the subcontinent, as a glad tidings for Muslims in Burma, Bangladesh, Assam, Gujarat, Ahmedabad, and Kashmir. The group reports to the head of the Taliban in Afghanistan Mullah Omar and is led by a former commander of the Pakistani Taliban who is also in al-Qaeda’s wing in Pakistan. The mission of AQIS is to establish a global caliphate based on the Islamic law.
In line with this mission, months ago (September 2014) Al-Zawahiri released a video appointing Maulana Asim Umar as the Emir of AQIS; the appointment follows the extensive presence of al-Qaeda and associations with various jihadist groups in Pakistan.
Recently (March 2015) AQIS spokesman Usama Mehmood confirmed that nearly 50 of the group’s members have been killed in US drone strikes, including three senior leaders in separate strikes in January, one of them was the appointed Emir Maulana Asim Umar. The other two were named as the group’s Deputy Head Ustad Ahmad Farooq and Qari Imran the group’s central council member in charge of operations in Afghanistan.
Furtherly, AQIS commanders have been reported killed in a raid conducted in Karachi. According to ‘The Express Tribune’, on April 14, the Pakistan’s Counter-Terrorism Department conducted an operation in Karachi’s Orangi Town; as result, five militants have been killed including two AQIS commanders: Noorul Hassan, AQIS’ Karachi chapter chief, and Usman – alias Irfan or Abdullah –, AQIS deputy commander.
What is interesting to highlight, is the ‘professional’ profile of the appointed (and killed) Emir. Who was Asim Umar, the Head of al-Qaeda's India unit?
He was considered to be a long-time propagandist of the militant group and earlier been associated with the Pakistan Taliban, Umar was expected to ensure that the relations with the Pakistani group were maintained. In other words, the appointment of Umar showed the importance of Pakistan jihadist groups to al-Qaeda Central Command, with Umar’s links to these groups as the key to foster close cooperation. In addition, Umar as ideologue could facilitate access to Pakistan’s youth as recruitment ground for al-Qaeda in contraposition with the ISIS presence in the area. His appointment was the continuation of a long standing relationship between al-Qaeda Central Command and the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), whereby al-Qaeda is the ideological inspiration for the TTP, with the latter providing support and even reported safe havens for al-Qaeda militants.
It is clear that not the Afghan Taliban but leaders and members of AQIS had been the main target of US and Pakistani operations since the security forces have launched military operations in Pakistani North Waziristan in June 2014. Afghan Taliban still remain a secondary target because the real target is al-Qaeda, its affiliates and the radical competitors (such as ISIS).
Why not the Afghan Taliban?
- Firstly, the Afghan Taliban is a local movement, with strict relationship with al-Qaeda but without global or regional ambitions.
- Secondly, the US is attempting to break up the relationships between the Taliban and their external supporters (in order to break down a connection which represent a strength for both the actors).
- Thirdly, the Taliban are not included in the terrorist-list because their potential and desirable role in the future of Afghanistan.
- As a final point, neither the International Coalition forces nor the Afghan National Security Forces are able to defeat the Taliban.
ISIS is moving to Afghanistan
Moreover, what is important to underline is that, in contrast with the AQIS, ISIS is moving to Afghanistan, creating affiliates groups, recruiting Afghan and foreign fighters and conducting operational activities.
Recently, ISIS militants were responsible for kidnapping dozens of Shiite men; the information was for the first time officially reported by the Afghan government: ISIS is now officially a threat. In detail, two former Taliban leaders, who switched to ISIS, were behind a mass abduction in February, in which ISIS militants seized 31 passengers from buses traveling from Zabul province to Kabul.
As reported by the ‘Washington Post’ and summarized by the ‘Foreign Policy - The South Asia Daily’, hundreds of foreign fighters are moving into Afghanistan from Pakistan bolstering the Taliban and increasing the level of violence in the conflict.
Afghan officials stated that in Badakhshan province the Taliban militants overran military positions in the province and beheaded 18 Afghan National Army soldiers; this event could be assessed as an effect of the influx of foreign and Pakistani fighters.
According to Afghan official statement who beheaded the soldiers were foreign fighters and not the local Taliban.
Besides, a recent report confirms the role of the foreign fighters and their influence. The United Nations stated that thousands of foreign fighters from about 100 countries are fighting for al-Qaeda, ISIS, or affiliated groups; of those fighters, an estimated 6,500 are operating in Afghanistan. The UN report was released after a group of Uzbek militants claiming to be members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) swore allegiance to ISIS.
General situation in brief
The situation is generally worsening.
The escalation of insurgency attacks comes as the traditional ‘spring fighting’ season is about to begin. The situation is worsening especially in southern and eastern provinces.
As confirmed by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, in the first quarter of 2015 the number of casualties caused by ground operations rose eight percent compared to the same time period in 2014; in contrast the overall number of civilian casualties declined by two percent but is reported a fifteen percent rise in women and children casualties.
Concerning the Afghan National Security Forces, the Afghan National Army (ANA) lost more than 20,000 members in 2014 due to desertions, discharges, and casualties in combat, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). From January to November 2014, the ANA’s numbers declined by 11 percent, to 169,000 soldiers (the force is still the smallest it has been since the fall of 2011).
Moreover, the Afghan Counternarcotics Minister stated that the poppy cultivation had risen seven percent in the current season; according to the official report, poppy was grown on 224,000 hectares of land in 132 districts and 65 percent of the cultivation occurred in Helmand, Kandahar, Farah, and Nimroz provinces.
The new actors are imposing new dynamics whose consequences are not easily containable.
Analysis, assessments, forecasts
The Armed Opposition Groups activity and attacks are expected to rise with the coming of spring season when the weather gets warmer and snow begins to melt in Afghanistan; in line with the past years, the insurgency would get its momentum in a conflict that continues to hit Afghan security forces at an accelerated rate.
As consequence, it would be difficult for the Afghan government to push through its peace agenda that aims to find a political solution based on negotiate to the persistent crisis and instability.
Furthermore, many Taliban fighters have abandoned their original groups and have joined the so-called ISIS.
Considering the influx of foreign fighters in Afghanistan, this fighting season will be – one more time – the hardest fighting season. It is assessed that only part of the threat had migrated to Afghanistan from Pakistan as consequence of the Pakistan’s military operation in North Waziristan; but an important component of the foreign fighters presence in Afghanistan has to be considered, on the one hand, as the direct result of the ISIS policy to expand the “caliphate” influence into Indian subcontinent and, on the other hand, the AQIS’ effort to contrast it.
This fresh wave of foreign fighters has added a probable new dimension to the Afghan conflict, threatening more instability, more violence, more challenges to the International Community and to the weak Afghan government which is not able to contrast militarily the Armed Opposition Groups and to contain the growing conflictual dynamics boosted by old-actors and newcomers.
On the one hand, the Ghani-Abdullah policy is to improve the relations with Pakistan in order to gain its support in facilitating peace talks with the Taliban.
But, as possible consequence of the foreign fighters expansion in Afghanistan, negotiations with the few Taliban leaders could be more difficult and could drive to an unsuccessful result because many young Taliban fighters, in particular the most fanatic ones, are apparently switching their loyalty to ISIS. A trend that is supported by the large use of social media as recruiting technique both in Pakistan and Afghanistan. At the moment, the Taliban leadership has not showed any indication that it would agree to a peace negotiation with the Ghani-Abdullah government.
Moreover, the role and the regional ambitions of Iran are growing, possibly as consequence, on the one hand, of the ongoing US-Iranian nuclear dialogue and overture and, on the other hand, of the ISIS expansion and the Iran’s role to contrast ISIS in Syraq (and Afghanistan); as recently stated by the Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, Iran offers joint counterterrorism operations with Pakistan and Afghanistan inside their territory”. This is an important dynamic that will open to a new phase of the Iranian’s role in the region.
Concluding, after Syraq and Lybia, ISIS is trying to extend its influence into Afghanistan. Considering the development of the phenomenon from the double perspective of “time” and “space”, we have to be aware of the need to contain, disrupt, degrade and defeat ISIS immediately wherever it exists and considering it a transnational, global and linked threat, and don’t committing the mistake to analyze the events and the attacks in MENA areas as disconnected dynamics: each single events, even if not coordinated, is a part of a large political plan based on revolutionary and disruptive ideological principles.