After recent attacks by Islamic State (IS) on the Iraqi Embassy in Kabul and the suicide attack on a Shiite mosque in Herat in Western Afghanistan killing scores of people, the strength of IS in Afghanistan is an undeniable reality. The gaining of ground by IS in Afghanistan is a direct and grave threat to Pakistan and that was the reason the spokesman of Pakistan’s Foreign Office in the wake of recent attacks in Afghanistan stated that Da’esh in Afghanistan is a threat to Pakistan. The spike in the IS attacks in Afghanistan came within weeks of the defeat of the group in Mosul in its heartland in Iraq and its being besieged by pro-U.S. militias in Syria. The defeats in the Middle East and the rise in attacks in Afghanistan clearly indicate that IS is trying to bring the Middle Eastern conflict to Afghanistan. This is a very dangerous and disturbing development for the region, particularly Pakistan.
Only very recently Pakistan has been able to achieve near control over all the militant and terrorist groups operating in the country and in restoring the state writ over all its territories. But Pakistan is far from stabilizing the previously militant-infested areas particularly in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and certain parts of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. In this situation if IS is able to take root in Pakistan by using Afghan territory then it would be a grave threat to Pakistan.
According to Afghan Defense Ministry Spokesman General Dawlat Waziri, “This year we’re seeing more new weapons in the hands of the insurgents and an increase in numbers of foreign fighters.” Intelligence and media reports suggest that an increasing number of fighters are arriving in Afghanistan from Iraq and Syria through Iran. If this really is the case, which it seems to be, then all the countries of the region are responsible for this shifting of fighters from the Middle East to Afghanistan. It is surprising how Iran is unable to control the movement of IS fighters from Iraq and Syria to Afghanistan because otherwise Iranians are quite capable of controlling the entry and movement of members of global terrorist groups. In this regard the example of the arrest of Jundullah, now an affiliate of IS, founder Abdul Malik Regi, is a case in point. Regi’s chartered plane which flew from Pakistan to Qatar was intercepted by Iranian Air Force jets in midair and forced to land in Iran. Regi, an Iranian national fighting for a separate Sunni state in Iran, was then executed after a summary trial. Thus, Iran’s inability to control the movement of IS fighters from the Middle East to Afghanistan is quite inexplicable. Only one plausible reason for this “inability” could be to give a tough time to US forces in Afghanistan by engaging them in a two way fight with the Afghan Taliban and IS. After US President Donald Trump’s assuming of a clear anti-Iranian stance despite previous US President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Tehran, Iran has ample justification to create problems for Washington in Afghanistan. But this could be counterproductive as state sponsorship of terrorism has always boomeranged on the countries providing support to terrorist organizations.
It is important to note that according to Afghan security officials the arriving of IS fighters is not just the descent of ragtag militants. Rather, most of them are battle-hardened, educated and professional fighters numbering in the thousands. Experts say such militants are more dangerous because they can recruit many others within Afghanistan and, possibly, Pakistan by giving many aimless but educated youths a cause for which to live and fight. An important aspect of IS fighters has been that many of them have been quite literate, as one would not like to use the word “educated” for them, otherwise they would not have resorted to such an extremist and violent way of life. Nevertheless, such literate fighters have more attraction for potential young fighters.
There seem some contradictions in the statements of Afghan officials and US commanders in Afghanistan regarding the IS presence there. While Afghan functionaries identify the presence of a large number of IS fighters in Afghanistan, US General commanding NATO forces in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson last April had said that while IS had an aspiration to bring in fighters from Syria, “we haven’t seen it happen.” The realities on the ground may have changed now, but still this dichotomy of views between Afghan and US officials is very intriguing. One feels that the Afghan officials want to support and propagate IS and its presence in Afghanistan to prevent Washington from completely withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan. In this way the Afghan officials want to exploit the sensitivity of Americans regarding IS.
There has been evidence of the Afghan National Directorate of Intelligence supporting IS fighters in Afghanistan. The reason for this support has been to pit IS against the Afghan Taliban, create problems for Pakistan by supporting IS fighters in Afghanistan and incentivize a cross border movement into Pakistan, to create problems within that state. However, this support from Afghan intelligence agencies is going to be counterproductive for Afghanistan and this is already more than evident. IS has not been able to replace the Afghan Taliban; rather, the latter have been resurgent. More disturbingly, instead of IS making any inroads into Taliban ranks and strongholds, it has strengthened itself only in provinces that cannot be termed as strongholds of the Taliban. Afghan officials themselves admit that IS has its network in nine Afghan provinces, including Nangarhar and Kunar in the east to Jawzjan, Faryab and Badakshan in the north and Ghor in the central west. The attack on a Shiite mosque in Herat province killing, among others, the father of Fatemah, captain of the Afghan all-girls robotics team, which recently visited the US, is very disturbing. Herat located on the border with Iran, remained largely unscathed even during the Taliban era by destruction. So if IS is making attacks in Herat and that also on a very specific target, this demonstrates the strength and capability of IS in Afghanistan.
Historically events and incidents in Afghanistan have negatively influenced Pakistan, particularly KP and Balochistan and FATA. For instance, the Pakistani Taliban emerged as a direct consequence of the rise of the Afghan Taliban. In this context the presence and strength of IS in Afghanistan can have a similar fallout which would be a grave threat to Pakistan.
Pakistani decision-makers after decades of delay, concluded that in order to have a lasting solution to the negative impact of events in Afghanistan casting shadows on Pakistan, there should be comprehensive border management. Work on fencing is ongoing and it would be completed within a couple of years at a heavy cost. This is the most important step in regard to Pakistan’s security on the Durand Line. Once the border with Afghanistan is comprehensively fenced and manned by Pakistan, then the threat from IS would be greatly mitigated.