Al-Qaeda concerned itself with establishing the “base conditions” for the Caliphate through its various franchised affiliates (i.e. AQIS, AQAP, AQIM, etc.). Other Islamist movements speak about establishing an Islamic State but are essentially national Islamist movements (such as the Chechen Islamists, Palestinian Hamas, Hezbollah in Lebanon and various Ansar al-Sharia franchises); these groups are pan-Islamist in so far as they support other Islamist movements around the world, but are tied to their local charismatic leaders and local political situations. The Islamic State challenges these notions, aspiring unite the entire Muslim world under the authority of its self-proclaimed Caliph.
While physically centered in the Levant, the group is open to the possibility that they may face defeat in the short term and be temporarily driven out of Iraq and Syria. They have prepared for this ideologically by declaring that al-Baghdadi is the 8th “rightly-guided” caliph, but it is the 12th who will oversee the final battle–meaning they don’t expect their ultimate goal to be realized before al-Baghdadi and at least 3 of his successors die or are killed (assuming these subsequent appointees are all “rightly-guided”). In line with this ideology, the organization itself is designed to survive beyond al-Baghdadi, and even across generations.
And so, when the U.S.-led air campaign began, the group began cultivating alternative havens. Their expeditionary moves into North Africa, particularly Libya, have gained a good deal of media attention following the recent execution of scores of Egyptian Copts (and subsequent heavy-handed response from Egyptian President Fatah al-Sisi). Thier incursions into Yemen have also received coverage due to the growing showdown between ISIS and AQAP in the backdrop of the central government’s surrender to Houthi rebels. The Islamic State’s expansions into Central Asia, however, are much less known–but potentially very important.
A Critical Juncture
It has been apparent for at least the past year that elements of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan had traveled to Syria to fight in the war against the Assad Regime. The exact number of fighters coming from the region is not known, but whatever the number, it was significant enough to have an impact on the jihadi movements in Pakistan. Even at that time, the influence of ISIS was significant enough for Al-Qaeda devotee and Red Mosque preacher Abdul Mualana Aziz to proclaim allegiance to the new movement after it conquered Mosul in June of 2014.
Al-Qaeda defections have also helped ISIS spread its message and ideology to Central Asia–particularly as a result of the close connections between the jihadi groups of the Al-Qaeda and Taliban variety within Pakistan and Afghanistan. The appeal is particularly strong among a younger generation, less familiar with the “glorious” exploits of the previous generation of jihadists in Al-Qaeda or the Taliban and eager for a movement that is more dynamic than the retro style of Mullah Omar and Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Assisting ISIS’ move into the region is a deepening fragmentation of Taliban-affiliated groups on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border; divisions which are both ideological and methodological in nature–and are increasingly alienating the group from the local population. Meanwhile, the Afghan security forces are under considerable strain–facing heavy attrition and increasing desertions. There are signs that ISIS and its local sympathizers are trying to exploit this vacuum to gain a foothold in Central Asia. Establishing their local prowess was likely the motive of the recent assassination of an Afghan Taliban commander, attributed to ISIS.
For the United States, which is attempting to properly train Afghan security forces and leave Afghanistan in a position of relative security, this is a worrying sign. While describing ISIS’ expansion into the Afghanistan-Pakistan region as “aspirational” at the moment (as compared to al-Qaeda’s recent investment which seems more substantial and enduring), nonetheless the U.S. is attempting to curtail a deepened ISIS presence–for instance through a recent drone strike which killed Mullah Abdul Rauf (a former Taliban commander and Guantanamo detainee who joined the ISIS upon release). The Obama Administration is also reconsidering its 2016 drawdown plans to ensure that ISIS and other jihadist groups cannot make dramatic gains in the aftermath of a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan like they did in post-occupation Iraq.
While the U.S. works out its exit strategy, China is eager to increase its role in the international arena, particularly in Afghanistan. However, to insulate themselves from the threat of ISIS in Central Asia, China has been cultivating a friendship with the Taliban in the hopes that these more “moderate” and localized groups can help check ISIS’ growth. Russia has similar concerns in preventing further ISIS expansion into countries like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan; they are also casting their lots with the Afghan Taliban as a necessary partner for stability in the region.
Regardless of the Taliban’s internal struggles and the ideological threat posed by ISIS’ competition, this external support, when paired with the weakening of Afghan security forces, may strengthen the Taliban’s hand as it re-enters negotiations with the Afghan government to bring an end to the insurgency.
And so, despite the limited scope of their investment in Central Asia, at this precarious phase of Afghanistan’s transition, ISIS has the potential to be a spoiler–for the Taliban, the United States, the Afghan government…or more likely, all of the above.