Analysing IS in Pak-Afghan region

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Faisal Raja

On April 18, 2015, while General Sher Mohammad Karimi, Afghan Chief of General Staff, was presiding over the 132nd passing-out parade at the Pakistan Military Academy, Kakul, the Islamic State (IS) field operators were carrying out its first deadly attack on Afghan soil in Jalalabad. The suicide attack at a bank was so powerful that 33 persons died on spot, and more than 100 were injured. Later, Shahid Ullah Shahid, posing as a spokesperson of the Islamic State, claimed the responsibility of the attack. Since then a spate of IS-linked or IS-inspired incidents have occurred including one on July 22, 2016 in which more than 80 members of the Hazara community were killed when they were protesting over a development project in the capital.
These strikes echo a number of significant security concerns for the Pak-Afghan region. We shall also evaluate the imprint of such attacks on other insurgent groups and tactics of US-Afghan security forces in the region. There are three important areas where the likely prominence of IS in Afghanistan can cause security restructuring and national safety recalibration.
First, Taliban on both sides of the Durand Line could find a competitor among them for future power-sharing set-up in Kabul. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) already in search of a consensus leadership for structural compactness may embrace the emergence of IS as an opportunity to revive its position in the area. Since the beginning of the last year, there has been signs of IS presence in Pak-Afghan region though in Pakistan its presence remains low and ambiguous. However, these attacks have removed any apprehensions about footprints of IS in Afghanistan. It shall be matter of months if not days before these incidents translate into bolstering IS position in the Pak-Afghan region.
The power structure in Afghanistan is based on three important elements: tribe, territory and terror. Whosoever controls the most powerful tribes or exerts appreciable influence over tribal leaders, regulates territorial transportation lines, and maintains a spell of terror over population can rule with longevity and persistence in Afghanistan. Imagine if IS manages to control the three T’s the whole security threat paradigm would shift in the region. The strategic calculations about Taliban actions against Kabul can be reviewed through IS, which is traditionally anti-Taliban with a larger global agenda. The importance of outside players, currently enjoying considerable influence with Taliban, may also dwindle with the emergence of IS. A deadly conflict for power struggle between IS and Taliban may result into weakening of the latter and strengthening of the former.
Second, a new terror organisation like IS could operate in the region with different organisational structure and foot operators. Like private contractors working in major conflict zones, and carrying out difficult jobs that are unimaginable for formal security forces, troopers of terror may be paid workers without any strong religious and ideological affiliation with organisational aims and objectives. The higher IS echelon in Afghanistan may be galvanised through handsome finances from foreign countries. No extra effort for human resource recruitment is required as defection from current insurgent groups can inflate IS numbers from 7,000 to 13,000 according to a latest estimate. Such an organisation can then become a major tool for changing inner security dynamics of Pak-Afghan region.
The more the numbers of the Islamic State grow in Afghanistan, the more projection it receives worldwide. The high propaganda warfare may be coupled with management of savagery in war zone, an important tactic for getting attention through breaking news and leading captions on the front pages of international and regional newspapers. Traditionally, tactical operators in Taliban ranks consist of religiously motivated youth drawn from different areas having similar sectarian, ethnic or tribal base. IS, on the other hand, may have more tribal-cum-sectarian groupings hemmed in with heavy financial support. All anti-Taliban forces can now assemble under the banner of IS to put paid to the reign of terro in the region with another period of brutal suppression.
The United States could exploit the regional emergence of IS, and use them as a tool against the Taliban. Since the organisation would contain local tribal elements, therefore, important information on Taliban movement and its members could be obtained with relative ease. The Afghan National Army (ANA) could also maintain a tacit contact with IS for making inroads in central and southern parts of Afghanistan. IS militants could also goad the members of the TTP to join its ranks for proper operational activities within Pakistan.
Third, the resurgence of IS poses a number of challenges for Pakistan. A lot of questions could be raised on the efficacy of the Zarb-e-Azb if IS holds its foot in FATA or other settled areas in Balochistan. It might be possible that IS inspires urbanised youth for possible killing operations. Hiring foot soldiers for IS on the basis of financial assistance rather than on religious affinity poses an even greater threat for Pakistani intelligence agencies. If the TTP dissolves and joins IS it would get better logistical and technical support from Afghanistan. Different Punjab-based splinter groups that are currently associated with the TTP may also decide to embrace IS, which would present a different level of strategic insecurity for the state of Pakistan.
The IS may also be controlled completely through foreign handling and assistance, which can dent the current intermediary efforts of China and Pakistan with Afghan government for a possible settlement with Taliban. The nuclear deal between Iran and the West inked in the start of current year has further lowered the strategic relevance of Pakistan. Pakistan would also lose its strategic geographic edge once the United States attains a better regional penetration through Iranian engagement. Therefore, top Pak civil-military authorities see China-Pakistan-Economic-Corridor as a strategic equaliser that restores country’s relevance on international calculus.
In today’s environment terror organisations operate with flexibility on the basis of financial resources and logistical needs. There seems to be a clear departure from erstwhile unambiguous functionality to a state-of-flux capability, and these organisations search for better options for their survival and existence. The spectacular rise of IS in Iraq is the direct consequence of foreign finances, localised energy resources and high availability of weapons in the conflict zone. If IS secures the opium export routes, and regulates trade transmission centres along with maintaining free flow of weapons there is strong possibility of its evolution and sustenance in the Pak-Afghan region.