How will Daesh’s Afghanistan affiliate respond to setbacks?
The recent killing of Daesh leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in a US raid in Syria was welcomed by the Afghan government, which termed the action a major blow to the group and to terrorism in general. Regardless of the fact that insurgent groups have historically exhibited resilience after losing a leader, Al-Baghdadi’s death will definitely have a deep impact on Daesh’s activities in Afghanistan, at least in the short term. Al-Baghdadi might have had limited or no operational linkages with Daesh in Afghanistan, but he was an inspiration for the so-called caliphate declared by the group.
The affiliate of Daesh first emerged in Afghanistan in 2014, in the eastern province of Nangarhar, and gradually made inroads into neighboring Kunar. However, it maintained its stronghold in Nangarhar. In 2015, it named itself as Daesh’s Khorasan Province. The name Khorasan is a historical name associated with parts of Afghanistan, but it has never been used formally for the whole country. While Afghanistan already suffered from an insurgency in the form of the Taliban, the addition of Daesh has been another major security challenge for the country.
The group has now also become active in other parts of northern Afghanistan. Compared to the Taliban, Daesh has been even more violent, brutal and extremist in its views and interpretation of Islam. Any Muslim that does not adhere to its self-proclaimed version of Islam is considered to be a “kafir” (non-believer) and hence punishable by death.
The US military estimates the number of Daesh militants in Afghanistan to be about 2,000. However, this number could be higher and may grow as there are reports of new recruits as well as defections from the Taliban.
Daesh has carried out several brutal attacks targeting civilians.
In August, it claimed responsibility for attacking a wedding hall, taking the lives of dozens of innocent civilians. The attack was once again an eye-opener for Afghans that, after the Taliban, another group is keen to victimize them. However, over the past couple of years, the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) have conducted several successful operations against Daesh militants in Nangarhar, weakening the group’s hold on its major territory. Some militants even abandoned the group and surrendered to the provincial government.
The Afghan leadership has vowed to eliminate all of Daesh’s safe havens following the recent successful operations.
The talks between the US and the Taliban, when they were on the verge of sealing a deal, must have been important for Daesh. If the talks resume and a peace agreement is reached, Daesh will credit itself with being the sole insurgent group challenging the Afghan government, society and any international intervention it is opposed to. Daesh must be strongly banking on a segment of the population being unhappy with the impending deal, along with defections from the Taliban by militants who are more inspired by Daesh’s more extreme ideology.
In Afghanistan, Daesh has been trying its best to attack mainly Shiite neighborhoods to spur some kind of sectarian discord. But, luckily, they have so far failed. The Shiite minority and Sunni majority have been living together in the country for centuries, maintaining mutual respect and religious tolerance.
There are also concerns that, since Daesh has been significantly weakened in Iraq and Syria, it must be looking for an alternative stronghold, from where it can lead and inspire its virtual caliphate. Afghanistan, it is feared, could become that potential new home. Meanwhile, the Afghan leadership has vowed to eliminate all of Daesh’s safe havens following the recent successful operations against the militant group.
Considering Daesh’s major setbacks in Iraq and Syria, it is unlikely the group will stay in Afghanistan much longer. But it all depends on the continuous support of the international community for the ANDSF. The other point that contributes to the defeat of Daesh in Afghanistan is the probable US peace deal with the Taliban. The Taliban and Daesh consider each other as rivals and, if a peace agreement is reached, it will definitely embolden the Afghan government to defeat Daesh in a short space of time.
- Ajmal Shams, based in Kabul, is president of the Afghanistan Social Democratic Party. He was a deputy minister in the national unity government and served as policy adviser to Ashraf Ghani before his presidential bid. Twitter: @ajmshams