Armed opposition groups stating loyalty to the Islamic State (IS) have tried to found a base in five Afghan provinces, but only in Nangarhar have they be successful. There, IS Khorasan Province (IS-Khorasan), the Afghanistan-Pakistan franchise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, found a fruitful area with a disjointed insurgency, bickering local elites, a tradition of Salafi networks and a host of Afghan and foreign movements and organizations.
The Islamic State’s Khorasan remains a theoretical entity consisting mainly (estimated 70percent) of marginal and disaffected Afghan Taliban and Teherik-e Taliban-e Pakistan defectors or Afghan youth who have joined with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU, listed as a terrorist group by the United States) and are grouped in peripheral north-eastern areas near to the Pakistani borders. The number of Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan are between 1,000 and 3,000; the estimated number varies widely due to offensives by the Taliban and the U.S.: the number has significantly reduced as of early March 2016 and is now around 2,500 fighters). The Taliban are estimated between 35-50.000. For 18 months, the two Armed Opposition Groups have directly disputed for the leadership of the jihad in Afghanistan, both militarily and in their propaganda and narratives.
Nonetheless, while Islamic State has engaged in some high-profile operations and has a global narrative – of Sunni versus Shia and Islam versus not-Islam –, it has failed to involve local jihadi groups and movement amid the fragmentation process involving the Taliban movement because the change in leadership, internal dynamics and organization, in consequence of the death of Mullah Omar in 2013 (officially reported in 2015) and the death of his discussed successor, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour. Islamic state is not as strong as it would like to be and doesn’t have the ability to match the Taliban at organizational and operational level.
But, even if theoretical, the presence of the Islamic State in Afghanistan is complicating the plans to withdraw the foreign troops as evidenced by the U.S. decision to leave 8,400 U.S. troops in the country, not 5,500 as previously planned.
At the moment, Islamic State is operating in strategic areas of the eastern Afghan Nangarhar province, along the shortest route between Peshawar (Pakistan) and Kabul, where have a fairly significant presence in four or five district. The Peshawar-Jalalabad-Kabul road was a critical logistic support route for the U.S. and NATO operation in Afghanistan and the most important route for Afghanistan’s trade with neighbours.
In 2016, IS-Khurasan showed its capability to expand beyond Nangarhar’s isolated areas and beat the province’s major urban area, the city of Jalalabad.
Islamic State aims to consolidate and enlarge its presence in Nangarhar and move into Nuristan and Kunar provinces. Militants connected to Islamic State also operate in other areas of Afghanistan, such as the Zabul province, where ex-IMU affiliates now part of the Islamic State growing phenomenon have focused their direct actions against Hazara Shia Muslims (between 10 and 20 per cent of Afghan population).
But the successes are limited and the U.S. forces have partnered with Afghan forces to target the Islamic States affiliates in their bases in Nangarhar Province and, in addition, the Islamic States has come under attack from the Taliban, while the Afghan government is conducting the program called ‘Popular Uprising Program’, aimed to harness territorial militias to fight Islamic State groups. Furtherly, on the one hand, Islamic State has missed the opportunity to incorporate large numbers of Taliban and other Afghan and Pakistani Armed Opposition Groups’ dissidents into its set of connections and, on the other hand, loose the momentum to express the ideological flexibility to make serious inroads in an islamically varied Af-Pak area.
The result is a growing conflict involving Afghan and non-Afghan actors, in Afghanistan and abroad, in particular in the Syrian war.
On the one hand, Iran has increased its use of Afghan, Pakistani and Lebanese Shia fighters in Syria in the ‘Fatemiyoun Brigade’; it means that thousands of Afghans citizen are fighting for the Syrian government. On the other hand, also the Islamic State in Af-Pak is recruiting fighters for the Syraq operational area (the land out of states control between Syria and Iraq); in other words Afghans volunteers hare part of the anti-Assad front and fighting for the Islamic State. Apart the dynamics at the moment, the problem is focused in the future because the return of these fighters in Afghanistan could enhance the Sunni-Shia conflicts, creating larger appeal at local level for the Islamic State ‘premium brand’.
But although Afghanistan’s war has not been previously characterized by sectarian violence, the Hazara Shia minority has long felt that it faces systemic discrimination and marginalization. Since the beginning of the war, the Hazara community has faced growing violence in recent years creating a growing division and distrust between Hazara community and the central administration in Kabul.
What emerges is a struggle for power justified and boosted by sectarian and jihadi radicalism: Islamic State’s claims of responsibility for the attacks against Shia targets are explicitly sectarian. Till now, Afghanistan has remained largely resilient to the sectarianism that increasingly characterizes conflicts from the Middle East to North Africa but Islamic State attempts to ‘sectarianise’ the Afghan war might be aggravated by Iran’s recruitment of Hazaras. It is an ongoing political and ideologically process moving from the ‘Afghan national war’ conducted by the Taliban to the global and denationalized jihad that under the umbrella of the Islamic State ‘brand’ is burning the Great Middle East and increasingly showing hostile attitude to Europe involving Muslim migrants and European Muslims. Afghanistan would be a major strategic stronghold for Islamic State, but geographic constraints might make deeper links more problematic than with the Islamic State associate in Libya, Nigeria or Egypt.
Afghans in Syria with Bashar al-Assad regime
Syria’s main opposition groups are conveying serious concerns over Iran’s campaign of recruiting Afghans to fight in Syria.
The Afghan government is conscious of activities of Afghans in Syria and embarrassed by its citizens fighting for a foreign government; the Afghan authorities have also had to contend with the loss of recruits when they are desperately looking for recruits to fight the war in Afghanistan against the Taliban and the growing Islamic State affiliates. Officially ‘the Afghan government is addressing the matter through diplomatic channels and has informed the UN High Commission for Refugees accordingly’ said Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Shekib Mustaghni.
On the operational front, the Afghan brigades are viewed with suspicion by their own allies because the low level of military capabilities and because the Afghan militiamen are indicated as too young and poorly trained. Recent areas of operations and frontlines are Palmira, Aleppo, Homs, where the Afghan brigades reported several loses.
The Af-Pak militants in Syria with the Islamic State
On the other front there are fighters from the Af-Pak and Central Asia areas.
In the complex, it is estimated that between 27,000 to 31,000 foreign fighters have travelled to Syria and Iraq since fighting broke out in 2011 to join the Islamic State and other jihadi Armed Opposition Groups in the region. 14,000 of them would be from Asian countries and fighting mainly for the Islamic State.
Even if not confirmed the numbers, the Pakistani Taliban reported in July 2013 that its hundreds of fighters were fighting against the al-Assad regime in Syria, under the flag of the ‘Syrian Islamic Front’ linked to al-Qaeda. Some of them go and then return after spending some time fighting there.
On the one hand, Pakistani Taliban fighters have established their own camps, a command and control center and a Taliban's office in Syria.
On the other hand, the Afghan Taliban Shura Council denied Taliban’s participations to the war in Syria adding that no Afghani Taliban are fighting alongside the Syrian rebels.
After the fragmentation of the Teherik-e Taliban-e Pakistan (TTP) in 2015, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a main insurgent group operating in Af-Pak in support to Taliban and al-Qaeda, stated its loyalty to the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. A decision which consequence was the fracture of the movement in different groups, in support to or in contrast with the Islamic State and al-Qaeda and the Taliban. An event, which followed the Taliban split after the announcement of the death of its leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.
‘Hereby, on behalf of all members of our movement, in line with our sacred duties, I declare that we are in the same ranks with the Islamic State in this continued war between Islam and non-Muslims’, the leader of IMU Usman Gazi wrote in a statement on September 2014.
The consequence was the turmoil within the insurrectional front that opened to a new front on the wave of the Islamic State momentum.
The composition of the IMU is mixed, there are not only Uzbeks, but also Tajiks, Kyrgyz, Uyghurs, Chechens, and Arabs as well.
Concluding, it is assessed that, if a presence in Syria of Afghani and Pakistani fighting for the Islamic State, is confirmed, it is not linked with the participation of the Afghan Taliban or the Teherik-e Taliban-e Pakistani groups. At the same time, it is not excluded the participation of individuals or other Afghani or Pakistani Armed Opposition Groups, as confirmed by several reports, which medium-long term consequences must not be underestimated.