Friday, February 5, 2016

How Much of a Threat is the Islamic State in Afghanistan?

     With many concerned about a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan – along with its support groups such as al-Qaeda and the Haqqani Network – the emergence of an Islamic State group cell, or province, in Afghanistan has many worried as well.  However, it is not clear how potent or even threatening the group’s cell is in that country despite claims to the contrary.  There is some conflicting information concerning the threat the group poses as well as the support it garners.

     Recent action taken by the Obama administration indicates that it is taking this cell seriously.  The State Department designated the Khorasan Province, as it’s known, a foreign terrorist organization – the first so-called IS province to be designated as such following IS’s declaration of a “caliphate” as groups such as IS’s Sinai and West African provinces (formerly known as Boko Haram) were designated years prior.  The designation prohibits support to the group and allows for financial sanctioning.

     “The US has treated the Islamic State-Khorasan Province as a terrorist organization long before officially listing it as terrorist organization. Top leaders of the Khorasan Province have been targeted and killed in US airstrikes,” Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies wrote for The Long War Journal.  “Among those killed in US airstrikes over the past year include: Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim, the deputy emir and a former detainee at Guantanamo Bay; Jalaluddin, the mufti or top religious leader; Shahidullah Shahid, its senior spokesman; and Gul Zamn Fateh, a deputy emir and commander for the Khyber tribal agency in Pakistan.”

     Many have questioned the direct link ISIL-K (as the Obama administration has referred to the province) has to the central leadership of the Islamic State.  “We also have to be careful to note that ‘ISIS’ in Afghanistan is really composed of disgruntled Taliban who were unhappy with the direction of the movement and who were seeking to ‘rebrand’ their factions to gain momentum,” Jason Lyall, an expert on Afghanistan and insurgency at Yale University told Vox using another acronym for IS.  “These defections to ISIS only increased after the death of [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar was publicly announced in July 2015, as splinter groups broke away from the new leader, Akhtar Mohammad Mansour.”

     Military officials describe the group’s capability as “operationally emergent” which is defined as “not having the ability to orchestrate or control operations in more than one part of the country at a time,” “We're not seeing Daesh elements in Iraq or Syria orchestrating events here in Afghanistan.,” said Brigadier General Wilson Shoffner, deputy chief of staff for communications, Resolute Support Mission, in Afghanistan using the Arabic acronym for the group.  However, the Obama administration recently relaxed the targeting requirements against the group enabling a more offensive, as opposed to defensive posture.  “American officials now need to show only that a proposed target is related to the Islamic State’s affiliated militias in Afghanistan. Previously, such a target could be approved only if it had significant ties to Al Qaeda’s remnants in the region,” according to the New York Times.  This move, in addition to the foreign terrorist designation, signals the administration is taking the group seriously. 

     Some have warned of the group’s operational capability and the threat it imposes.  “It shouldn’t have taken a year for the White House to identify ISIS as a threat in Afghanistan and authorize our forces to engage them,” Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Mac Thornberry (R-TX), said following the announcement to relax targeting.  “In fact, the committee understands that our military made two requests last year to combat this emerging ISIS threat, the first dating back to February 2015. Once again, the President’s inaction and denial of the ISIS threat has only resulted in its growth and put our troops and our Afghan partners at greater risk.”

     A report released in December by the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank, argues that IS’s affiliate “is effective, operational, and positioned to expand” and the U.S. and its NATO allies “must respond more aggressively to this threat.”  The report further prognosticated: “Leadership struggles among the Afghan Taliban will likely enable ISIS to expand its presence and legitimacy in Afghanistan. ISIS is exploiting the leadership vacuum left following confirmation of Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s death.   ISIS will likely heighten efforts to recruit and build strength amidst reports of the possible death of Mullah Omar’s nominal successor, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, on December 2.”

     Others, however, are skeptical of IS’s Khorasan province’s posture.  “I don't think that you're hearing a lot of American policymakers or the military establishment being very alarmist about the Islamic State in Afghanistan. People talk about the Islamic State writ large, but specifically with respect to Afghanistan, I don't think we're hearing people saying this is an existential threat to Afghanistan and therefore, is a key threat to America's strategic interests,” Rebecca Zimmerman, an associate policy analyst at the RAND Corporation told Vox

     Writing in Foreign Affairs, Nathaniel Barr and Bridget Moreng, threat analysts at the consulting firm Valens Global, argue that while the Khorasan region is central to IS’s global strategy, challenges have plagued the group from the beginning.  “[A]lthough the Taliban may not be particularly savvy on social media, the group understands the needs and desires of Afghanistan’s jihadists in ways that ISIS can’t,” they wrote.  “Many of ISIS’ troubles in Afghanistan are of the group’s own making. ISIS has undermined its prospects by criticizing Pashtunwali, the tribal code to which Pashtuns—the majority of the Taliban fighting force—adhere. In ‘Dabiq’ [IS’s English-language magazine], ISIS also criticized Deobandi Islam, the Taliban’s prevailing school of Islamic thought. It is therefore not surprising that the only ISIS foothold in Afghanistan is in Nangarhar Province, which, unlike most other provinces, has a significant number of adherents to Salafism, the Islamic methodology practiced by ISIS.”

     Additionally, it is unclear how much actual control IS’s central leadership exerts over the Afghan based cell.  “Wilayat Khorasan is more an expression of local Taliban rivalries than it is of an Islamic State expansion into South Asia. Only in Libya is there any suggestion of administrative cohesion and strategic cooperation between the province and the capital, and even here, local conditions make the expansion of doubtful endurance,” Richard Barrett, a former British diplomat and intelligence officer and senior vice president with The Soufan Group, wrote in West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center’s “Sentinel.”

     The U.S. will continue to have its hands full in Afghanistan as continuing reports from the region do not paint a rosy picture for the local forces in their struggle for security and stability. While the Taliban and its allies remain the key focus, IS will doubtless garner continued monitoring. “U.S. and [Resolute Support] leaders will continue to monitor the potential threat of an established ISIL presence in Afghanistan. The Afghan government is particularly concerned about the rise of IS-KP, which they see as a serious looming threat in the region,” a congressionally mandated report by DOD on the security conditions in Afghanistan said about IS’s Khorasan affiliate. “IS-KP represents an emergent competitor to other violent extremist groups that have traditionally operated in Afghanistan; this may result in increased violence among the various extremist groups in 2016.” While IS doesn’t pose a grave threat for the time being, they have potential in an increasingly unstable region which bears close watching.

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