The situation in Afghanistan: ISIS activity at the beginning of 2018.
The complexity of the situation in Afghanistan is not only due to the presence of different military and political forces in the country, but also to the contradictory reports and information that circulate in the media.
At the same time, the main sources for analysis are the media in Russia, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. However, there are weaknesses in this regard as well, which hinder an impartial assessment of the situation in Afghanistan. Russian sources are often prone to exaggerating the scale of the situation, although in terms of operational information they have more accurate data. At the same time, information from open sources in Uzbekistan is limited to the ethnic minorities in northern Afghanistan, where Uzbeks live. Afghanistan’s local, provincial or district government structures often give conflicting information, which is linked to exaggerating the threat from both the Taliban and ISIS, thereby justifying increased spending to secure towns and villages. At the same time, the Afghan National Army often exaggerates the number of ISIL fighters killed, which is also determined by the political situation in the country.
Nevertheless, taken together, all of this information, which is reflected in the following points, forms a certain picture of what is happening in Afghanistan:
- The general trend of ISIL’s branch in Afghanistan — wilayat (province) of Khorasan.
- Locations, numbers of weapons.
- Indicative figures on individuals from the militant ranks.
- Media reports and a statement from government officials.
Accordingly, as of late 2017 and early 2018, the dynamics of ISIL’s growth in Afghanistan are as follows:
- The Kabul sector, which is characterised by the predominance of subversive and terrorist small tactical groups, with the number of groups reaching 40-60 according to operational information from the Russian intelligence services. The main locations are training and shelter bases in the southeast of Khaki Jabbar district and the south of Surobi district, notable because these areas are areas of mixed Taliban and ISIL presence. The group of mine blast instructors under different aliases includes Libyan, Syrian and Egyptian nationals, mostly students of the so-called «suicide emir» Tariq al-Khazri (a high-ranking ISIS figure killed in 2015). All these small groups are directly subordinate to the «viceroy» of the ISIS branch in Afghanistan, Akhunzad Farooqi. This information from the Russian media is quite consistent with reality, as indicated by the periodic terrorist attacks in Kabul since 2016. At the same time, the Afghan Ministry of Defence, represented by its spokesperson Dovlat Waziri, stated in early 2018 that the Haqqani Network was behind the terrorist attacks being carried out in Kabul and that ISIL did not have sufficient resources for such actions. However, in 2017, the Afghan Ministry of Defence stated that ISIS in Afghanistan was strengthening its position in the north and east of the country. This contradiction stems from traditional accusations by Afghanistan’s leadership against Pakistan, which harbours Haqqani Network fighters in its territory. However, it should be noted that the students of Tariq al-Khazri, who is responsible for hundreds of terrorist attacks in various countries, are in no way inferior to the training of Haqqani Network bombers known in the field. Moreover, it should be borne in mind that the Russian media is citing sources in the Taliban movement, which the US and the West have repeatedly accused them of doing. Moreover, according to the same Russian media, the main focus of ISIS’s «Kabul sector» is to create tension between the Sunnis and Shiites of Afghanistan, particularly discontent among the latter, who are the main targets of the suicide bombers’ attacks. According to them, an increase in terrorist attacks on Shiite mosques, cultural centres and Shiite neighbourhoods in Kabul should be expected in the spring and summer of this year.
- ISIL’s north-western strand, the backbone of which consists of fighters from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. The first areas of localisation are in Badakhshan province — north of Zebak district, south of Ishkashim district, west of Hvahan district; the number is unknown, one of the reasons is the mixed presence with Taliban units. According to Russian sources, the number of fighters reaches 2 thousand, mostly Tajiks, light automatic weapons. The next area is the localized Dargab District of Takhar Province, close to Abdullah Akrashev (one of the commanders of the small group in this district, a native of Chechnya, whose cousin Akhmad was killed during the liquidation of a cell of ISIS in Chechnya). The area can be seen as a promising financial hub for ISIS’s Afghan vilayat Khorasan affiliate. The ethnic composition of ISIS supporters in Dargab District is dominated by Uzbeks (the locals in the district are over 90% Uzbeks), most of whom presumably have connections in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan for the transit of opium from Afghanistan. The number of ISIS fighters is approximately up to 1,000 according to various sources. A network of heroin transit and storage sites are located west of Yengi Kaleh, along the coastline of the Panj border river, with local police also involved in protecting and covering these sites. However, these small groups are not yet openly affiliated with ISIS, apparently because of the need to conduct financial transactions for the transit of drugs, which therefore requires a calm environment, especially since neither Afghanistan’s national army nor the Taliban are fighting in Dargab District. Umar, one of the field commanders of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan’s son Juma Namangani, oversees the distribution of funds among foreign fighters. The exact number of ISIS fighters in Kunduz Province in Imam Sahib and Kalayi Zal provinces is not known; this number, which the Russian media is basing on, may not correspond to reality, because traditionally only Taliban fighters have been active in this area. The more so, such a large number of fighters requires large quantities of food, medicine and weapons, which the ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan, vilayat Khorasan cannot yet afford. Additionally, the Afghan national army and its intelligence agencies have no evidence of large numbers of ISIS fighters in these counties. According to Uzbek intelligence, some militants of Uzbekistan Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, numbering up to 2,000 fighters, are present in Darzab district of Jawzjan province and Sayyad and Kohistan districts of Sari Pul province, and are considered to be the most combat-ready and well-trained. The activity of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan since 2016 has contributed to an increase in the number of supporters. According to several media reports, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan field commanders Umar Namangani and Azizullah Yuldashev decided to step up training for Uzbekistan Islamic Movement fighters by early spring 2018. In particular, to train a large number of rocket and mortar units in training camps in Jawzjan province (south of Jar Kuduk settlement in Darzab province) and Sari Pul (at the junction of Sayyad and Kohistan provinces with Faryab province). Personnel in the rocket and mortar squads are trained on Chinese-made Type 52 and 56 recoilless guns (RPGs) purchased from the Taliban, which operate in Sari Pul and Faryab provinces. Despite reports that ISIS and its supporters are divided, with the northern branch operating independently and not recognising the leadership of ISIS Afghanistan’s viceroy, Akhunzad Farooqi, field commanders Umar Namangani and Azizullah Yuldashev are reported to be actively engaged with ISIS fighters in the Ghor provinces, which are subordinate to Akhunzad Farooqi and composed exclusively of Pashtuns.
- The southeastern ISIL bridgehead, which is localised in Nangarhar, Kunar and Laghman provinces, includes only Pashtun elements. Despite attempts by the Afghan National Army and NATO to dislodge ISIS fighters from these areas, all operations have failed. According to some media reports, the Afghan National Army, in view of its inability to conduct a full-scale cleansing of those areas, intends to negotiate with the US command in Afghanistan to increase the US military grouping towards the south-east, including not excluding the use of units from private US military companies in operations to eliminate pockets and bases in the Nangarhar, Kunar and Laghman mountains next spring. Nevertheless, after the heavy US bombing of Daesh militants in Nangarhar province in spring 2017 in Achin district, ISIS has strengthened its position in eastern Afghanistan, in the process seizing the Tora Bora mountain with its numerous caves and hideouts from the Taliban. Moreover, ISIS’s southeastern bridgehead remains an important logistical hub linking the regions of Pakistan’s Waziristan and eastern Afghanistan. In addition, training camps have been established in the Nangarhar and Kunar mountains, where command, liaison and reconnaissance personnel and rocket and mortar squads are being trained, and 14.5 mm and 23 mm anti-tank weapons are being produced by handicrafts.
Taken together, ISIS in Afghanistan has achieved two years of growth despite opposition from the US, the Afghan National Army and the Taliban. In 2016, ISIS effectively controlled only part of Achin district in Nangarhar province; by 2018, ISIS fighters are present in Badakhshan, Takhar, Kunduz, Jawzjan, Sari Pul, Ghor, Faryab, Kunar and Laghman.
ISIS is also actively recruiting Afghan ethnic minorities such as Uzbeks and Tajiks into its ranks, and in this respect, the Taliban, ISIS’ main competitor, have problems primarily because of the nationalism that is present within the Taliban.
On the other hand, should the Taliban join the peace talks, a split within the movement is possible because of the Taliban’s heterogeneity, with many commanders looking to defeat the government forces and NATO, such a move by the Taliban leadership could lead to a revolt among the Taliban.
The Taliban’s decentralisation flaw is also highlighted by the fact that Taliban fighters have twice captured Kunduz, a major administrative centre in northern Afghanistan, but have failed to hold it or win popular support. On the contrary, ISIS in Afghanistan has already formed several strategic directions quite clearly: the centre is Kabul, the south-east and the north, with a clear ideology to attract new recruits — the Pashto language media portal Khorasan operates.
At the same time, the tactical actions of NATO and the US in Afghanistan are to the advantage of ISIS; the problem is that the western coalition keeps control of strategic points and bases in the central cities of provinces, leaving villages and small towns to the Taliban and ISIS fighters, apparently believing that the terrorist groups lack the strength to seize and hold major administrative centres. And with 70-80% of the population living in rural areas, neither the Taliban nor ISIS will experience a shortage of new recruits.
Further expansion of DAISH in Afghanistan will be due to the deterrent presence of the U.S. and NATO, which respectively excludes the creation of pseudo-state structures on the territories under the control of DAISH fighters like Syria and Iraq and territorial ties.
On the other hand, an open invasion of Central Asia by ISIS is also impossible because of the presence of Russian military contingents in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, besides, the national armed forces of these countries are able to repel ISIS attacks and raids, despite forecasts by some countries that the number of DAESH fighters will increase to 12 thousand by spring 2018 in the north of Afghanistan.
In fact, for ISIS in Afghanistan, the competition with the Taliban, attacks on government structures and religious minorities — the Shiite Hazara — remains relevant in the medium term. In this aspect, one can also consider expanding its influence in areas of mixed ISIL and Taliban presence, where there is interaction between the two groups: buying and selling weapons, joint heroin smuggling operations, etc. According to media reports in 2017, such areas are in Zabul, Paktya, Kunar, Laghman, Kabul, Badakhshan, Kunduz, Jawzjan and Sari Pul provinces.
Nevertheless, the slow but gradual consolidation of ISIS’ position in Afghanistan will have implications for the three main countries that have interests in the region: Russia, Iran and China.
As a result, the zone of spreading instability in Afghanistan could expand to the boundaries of Central Asia, which is an area of interest for Russia. This is primarily an export of ‘jihad’ ideas — fighting the ‘Russian occupation’ for DAISH supporters and sleeper cells in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. The deterioration of the drug trafficking situation (ISIS is fighting for control) will lead to widespread corruption of security agencies in the countries of the region, their weakening and demoralisation, and ultimately their inability to effectively fight ISIS supporters within these countries. The destabilisation of Afghanistan and Central Asia will increase the activity of ISIS cells in the North Caucasus — Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria. But this is the worst-case scenario so far.
Iranian policy in Afghanistan, which is shaped by the exclusion of a threat springboard on its eastern border where the Sunni minority lives, will receive a new challenge in the form of ISIS seeking to create an escalation of the confrontation between Sunnis and Shiites in Afghanistan similar to those in the Middle East-Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
Iran’s attempts to create pro-Iranian lobby in Afghanistan’s political elite as well as amongst the general population of the loyalist stratum will be hindered by the very possibility of new hotbed of tension between Shiites and Sunnis, given the targeted attacks of ISIS. At the same time, the destabilisation of the situation in Afghanistan will increase the activity of the Baloch terrorist groups Ansar al-Furqan and others, creating tension on Iran’s eastern borders.
The strengthening of ISIS position in Afghanistan threatens not only Chinese economic projects in the region but also the security of Xinjiang province directly. The problem is that the territory under the control of al-Qaeda militants in Syria is noticeably shrinking; in this case, the Turkestan Islamic Party units, which number up to 5,000 according to Russian data, considered by al-Qaeda as elite and well-trained units, will be left behind. Afghanistan, where the remnants of the Islamic Movement of Eastern Turkestan exist, is the most favourable place: civil war, numerous terrorist groups, weak power structures, for Turkestan Islamic Party to relocate, if the terrorist groups in Syria are defeated.
The weakening of ISIL’s position in Afghanistan depends on Washington’s political will with a necessary large-scale troop increase, which directly contradicts President D. Trump’s pre-election promises to reduce military activity in Afghanistan. At the same time, there is a possibility of using private US military companies to suppress ISIL foci in Afghanistan, but this plan remains only in perspective for the time being. And further US and NATO confrontation exclusively with the Taliban will only exacerbate the situation, and will lead to the strengthening of ISIS’ position in Afghanistan, given the dynamics of growth in numbers and territorial occupation of this terrorist group since 2016.
Mambetov Nurdin, deputy director of the Prudent Solutions.