Daesh’s battle for Afghanistan

By Ayaz Ahmed

Militants disguised as medics stormed the Sardar Daud Khan Hospital in Kabul on March 8, killing at least 35 people and wounding dozens. Through its Amaq News Agency, Daesh claimed responsibility for the deadly assault on the 40-bed military hospital.

Though mostly contained by American airstrikes, the militant group seems to be steadily gaining more ungoverned territories in conflict-torn eastern Afghanistan. This was not the first attack claimed by the group. Daesh previously carried out a string of attacks in Afghanistan in a bid to attract more fighters towards its militant fold. In January 2016, Daesh organised an attack on the Pakistani consulate in Jalalabad. Moreover, the militant outfit rushed to claim responsibility for the twin suicide bombings at a protest march in Kabul in July 2016, killing around 80 people.

The first signs of Daesh’s presence in Afghanistan appeared in some provinces in the south and east of the country, including cities like Kabul and Jalalabad in 2014. The group’s early successes in Syria and Iraq gravitated some regional militant groups toward its terror bandwagon in Afghanistan. In 2014, the Al-Tawhid Brigade, the Ansar-ul-Khilafat Wal-Jihad and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) splinter group Jundullah pledged allegiance to Daesh in Afghanistan.

When a former TTP commander of Orakzai Agency in Pakistan, Hafiz Saeed Khan, became the leader of Daesh in Afghanistan, he heavily relied on his established militant networks to recruit in Afghanistan’s eastern provinces such as Kunar and Nangarhar. A large number of TTP militants had settled in these provinces owing to Pakistan’s counterterrorism operation, Zarb-e-Azb. Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim, Hafiz Saeed’s deputy, ran an indoctrination and recruitment campaign for Daesh in the southern province.

After observing Daesh’s anti-Taliban ideology, Usman Ghazi, the leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), pledged allegiance to the militant group and offered his full force to fiercely fight against the Afghan Taliban. What is intriguing to note is that Daesh has persuaded the IMU and defectors of the TTP in Afghanistan by providing them laptops, pickup trucks and sufficient funds to support their families.

According to an estimate by the Royal United Service Institute (RUSI), Daesh boasts about 7,000 and 8,500 elements in Afghanistan, counting both fighters and support elements. Threateningly, General John Nicholson, the top US commander in Afghanistan, recently said that around 7o percent of Daesh’s fighters in Afghanistan comprise former disgruntled members of the hibernating TTP. This ominous development should serve as a clarion call for the government of Pakistan.

Afghanistan has, by far, proved a fertile ground for Daesh to cultivate its terror and militancy. First, the group has capitalised on the country’s lingering bad governance and weak institutions to increase its influence in the country. The indifferent attitude of the Afghan government towards the creeping expansion of Daesh has immensely helped the terror group to augment its sway in the country.

Second, when Daesh was being established in Afghanistan, the Afghan National Army (ANA) was unable to nip the terror outfit in the bud. Even today, due to the lack of professionalism, quality training and equipment, the Afghan security forces are largely incapable of flushing Daesh out of the country. Internal corruption and the massive politicisation of the Afghan security forces have helped Daesh’s fighters penetrate into these ill-organised forces and gather intelligence for terrorist attacks.

Third, the rivalry of some countries over Afghan and Central Asian mineral and energy resources has facilitated Daesh to covertly increase its tentacles in Afghanistan. Russia, China and Iran are clandestinely supporting the Afghan Taliban against Daesh with the intent to prevent the militant group from expanding its reign of terror in the region. Pakistan and India are also engaged in a proxy war in Afghanistan to carve out their ‘special sphere of influence’.

Though the US has been conducting airstrikes against Daesh in Afghanistan, Uncle Sam may be secretly supporting some disillusioned Daesh fighters so that they will be employed to create mounting security issues for Russia in Central Asia and China in Xinjiang. What should not be forgotten is that the major US objective of overstaying in Afghanistan is also geared towards containing China’s economic rise and asserting Russia’s influence in the region – by hook or by crook.

Last, Afghanistan’s entrenched jihadi culture, the ethnic divide among the Afghans and the prevalence of religious radicalism have been greatly supportive of Daesh’s slow rise in the terror-stricken country. This has presumably saved the militant group’s time and resources from indoctrinating and training its recruits.

However, due to its extremely violent strategy, Daesh seems to be facing some hurdles in terms of expanding its militancy and influence in Afghanistan. So far, most of the Afghans have displayed outright unwillingness to join the militant group because of its disrespect for Afghan history and its policy of extreme callousness. For instance, on account of alleged link with the Taliban, Daesh massacred 10 elders from Achin district in Nangarhar by forcing them to sit on explosives in 2016.

The militant group is also confronted with an increasingly bloody battle unleashed by the resurgent Afghan Taliban. To maintain their monopoly in Afghan insurgency, the Taliban have reportedly raised a special force of 1,000 well-trained and lethally-equipped fighters to impede Daesh’s expansion in Afghanistan. Due to bloody clashes, both sides have lost hundreds of insurgents in terror-infested Afghan provinces of Nangarhar, Helmand, Farah and Zabul.

To inhibit Daesh from gaining more grounds in Afghanistan, the US has continued to conduct airstrikes against the militant outfit in some provinces of Afghanistan. US drone attacks have flushed out a large number of Daesh’s fighters from their established hotbeds in eastern Afghanistan. The militant group has now confined itself to Zabul, Faryab, Helmand, Ghazni, Kunduz and Nuristan. But it is exerting some hectic efforts to expand its tentacles in far-flung areas such as Jalalabad and Kunar.

The war against Daesh in Afghanistan cannot be won without effective cooperation amongst some regional countries. Pakistan, India, China, Russia and Iran need to coordinate with the Afghan government and enhance the declining capacity and capability of the Afghan security forces so that they can carry the day against Daesh.

The writer edits The Asia Watch.

The opinion piece was also published in The News International.

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