A number of Afghan experts are sounding the alarm about the risk of the country’s allies taking the eye off the ball both politically and militarily, distracted by problems elsewhere in Iraq and Syria. They warn that if this problem remains unresolved, this could lead to Afghanistan going through the same sort of tragedy that tore through the country at the start of the century.
The reason? ISIL. The Islamic fanatics made their first appearance in Afghanistan in 2015, three years after the group, which eclipsed even al-Qaeda for its savagery and hardline ideology, emerged from the chaos in Iraq and Syria. It inspired a number of defections from the Taliban, who swore allegiance to ISIL chief Aboubakr al-Baghdadi.
Styling themselves as the Islamic State warriors of the Khorasan, they began to harry the Afghan government at every opportunity, along with civilians and even their former Taliban brothers-in-arms. Their most recent, and bloody operation was the February 8 murder of Red Cross workers in the north of the country.
Why has another jihadist movement set up shop on the Taliban and al-Qaeda’s home turf?
Aziz Hakimi is a journalist with expert knowledge of the country.
“These groups are all very similar, but are entirely separate forces. The Taliban is a local force limited to within Afghanistan while ISIL thinks bigger, of a Great Muslim Caliphate, and its Afghan branch is an integral part of this new global Islamic adventure,” he says.
The birth of a movement
The Taliban was severely weakened after the official announcement of the death of its leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, because of infighting and division, right up to the higest level of the leadership.
One faction at the top of the organisation did not rule out peace talks with the Kabul government, while the majority refused any sort of dialogue with a western-backed administration. The jihad continued, but as any decisive victory appeared out of reach the Taliban began to lose its attraction as a new Salafist rival rose to the west and seemed to be unstoppable, making huge territorial gains in both Iraq and Syria.
ISIL made big promises. It would restore the great historic Muslim Caliphate of Islam’s golden age, an empire stretching from western China to Spain. In January 2015 former Taliban fighter and Guantanamo prisoner Mullah Abdul Raouf announced ISIL was forming a branch in Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan, on the Pakistani border.
The Afghan Interior Ministry’s Head of Antiterrorism Najibullah Mani says ISIL is now active in at least 11 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.
Nowhere to hide for civilians
While the Taliban concentrated their efforts on hitting Afghan and international military targets along with civil servants, ISIL took their fight to the civilian population as well, especially targeting the mainly Shi’ite Hazara minority. Their communities in Kabul were hit by a wave of assassinations and bombings of political and religious gatherings. Since last summer hundreds Hazaris have been killed or wounded in attacks condemned by the Taliban.
Iran and Russia choose curious bedfellows
The ISIL threat is growing for both Iran and Russia. ISIL’s desired objective, the Grand Caliphate, would include Iran and the Caucasus mountains. As the Afghan army and the allied international forces are not able to check the progress of ISIL, several international experts affirm that the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Taliban’s former sworn enemies, now support them in the fight against ISIL. Russia is doing the same, even if Moscow has denied giving them direct support.
However on February 29 2016 Russia’s ambassador in Kabul, Alexander Mantytskiy, promised the Afghan Senate that Moscow’s links with the Taliban were exclusively concerned with “guaranteeing central Asian security”, arguing that the Taliban were at war with common enemy ISIL.
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