After the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, the “Af-Pak” region now faces the resurgence of the Islamic State’s Khorasan chapter, raising fears of another round of conflict. Both in Pakistan and Afghanistan, ISIS-K attacks have become a regular feature.
After the emergence of the Islamic State in Pakistan’s former Federally Administered Tribal Area in 2015, its fighters were pushed across the border during the Zarb-i-Azb operation, but attacks continued despite the killing of the group’s chief Hafiz Saeed Khan (ex-Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan commander in the tribal area) in an American drone strike.
One estimate says this outfit carried out 38 attacks from May 2019 to the end of 2020. Subsequently, scores of Islamic State fighters were arrested in joint American and Afghan intel operations, forcing others to hide in the Kunar and Nangarhar provinces. This led to a turf war between the Afghan Taliban and Islamic State, which is continuing.
According to an estimate by the United Nations, Islamic State fighters do not number more than 2,000, but still carried out 77 attacks in the first four months of 2021. The group’s audacity has threatened the Taliban who curiously downplay the challenge, blaming it on the United States. But they know Islamic State’s emergence is an alternative option for Taliban dissidents. The current Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan understanding with the Pakistani state depends upon this factor: a lenient approach by the Pakistan Taliban leadership might swell Islamic State ranks.
The current round of turf war in Afghanistan, however, is not confined to the territory. The lethal interplay of ideology and technology also has a role. For instance, unlike the Taliban, who predominantly follow the Deobandi tradition of the Hanifi school, the puritanical bent of the Ahl-i-Hadith school was associated by rival clerics with the Islamic State’s uncompromising agenda of global jihad. This division was always there but took a violent turn in post-9/11 Pakistan. Unchecked hate speech by the clerics via social media intensified this turf war on both sides of the border.
In October 2020, a powerful explosion rocked a madrasa in Peshawar killing eight Taliban, mostly Afghans, and injuring 20 others. It was believed that the attack was carried out against the seminary’s Afghan organiser, Rahimullah Haqqani, a fiery preacher known for his speeches against the rival sect. Even at the time of explosion, the media-savvy cleric was live on social media.
At the start of 2021, the Islamic State also took responsibility for killing top Taliban commanders in targeted attacks in Peshawar, including the governor of Laghman province Maulvi Abdul Hadi and Taliban commander Mullah Nek Muhammad Rehbar, a fighter who played an instrumental role against ISIS-K in Nangarhar. It is ironic that common Afghans are exposed to all sorts of official checks, but those who foment violence are free to roam around and even kill with impunity.
This tolerance on one side of the border transforms organised violence into a political value on the other. Soon after the opening of the Doha offices, for instance, the Afghan Taliban won America’s confidence after unleashing much violence. It was this unflinching entrepreneurial capacity for spreading extremism and violence that convinced the US of the Taliban’s power, resulting in the Doha deal in 2020.
But America’s approach to fighting global jihadists through local actors is not new. In 2001, its exclusive focus on Al-Qaeda funnelled taxpayers’ money into the war, with the price of local space (predominantly former Federally Administered Tribal Area) being determined by the level of securitisation.
While the Musharraf regime “sold” Al-Qaeda militants to the US, the double game started after the dictator conferred legitimacy on the Pakistan Taliban by signing agreements with them in 2004 and 2005 respectively. This preferential dealing kept the cycle of destruction going.
The current cancerous growth of Islamic State and Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan militancy from Federally Administered Tribal Area to Afghanistan is also the outcome of official tolerance for organised religious violence – Islamic State and Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan militants are pushed across the border for political reasons but not eliminated on the spot. Militancy, in other words, connects the postcolonial state with local actors through a productive relationship with neo-imperialism. Systemic violence maintains itself through a cycle of violence and revenge, reinforcing cross-border terrorism.
In the Taliban’s Afghanistan, for instance, night raids are common. They target ex-military officials, clerics, journalists and the common people. Dead bodies are recovered on a daily basis. Some are hanging from trees, others dumped along roadsides. Even graves are not spared. The demolished tomb of an ex-Afghan state commander Azizullah Karwan – who was killed by the Taliban in 2018 – is a case in point.
Rival clerics stay outside their homes at nights, sending desperate WhatsApp messages to sympathisers in Peshawar seeking help. Making a mockery of the Doha deal, these blatant abuses challenge the idea of a “reformed Taliban”, and reinforce Islamic State power, turning the region into a powder keg.
Global media reports of former members of the US-trained Afghan intelligence service beginning to join the Islamic State are not surprising. Given the variety of people caught up in the cycle of revenge, there is more to come. But while the global media has held the Afghan state responsible for Kabul’s spectacular fall, such discourse has focused little on the downside of US dependence on local forces for creating conditions of extreme violence.
This entrepreneurial approach to militancy – ignoring the global nature of local violence – not only normalises these mounting abuses, but also presents violence as a fait accompli and, therefore, skips the focus on integrated forces of violence benefiting from the recycling local conditions of extremism.
We should not underestimate the consequences of the machine war that indicates the increased use of drones. Giving a briefing to the US Senate, Colin Kahl, undersecretary of defence for policy, said that the ISIS-K does not have the capacity to carry out attacks inside the US right now, but “we could see ISIS-K generate that capability in somewhere between six or 12 months”.
This time the US seems to fight terrorists from “over the horizon” (to use Joe Biden’s phrase as a reference to the drone war). It is a contradiction for an absolute power to see an enemy over the horizon while ignoring the fact we all live side by side in this small world.
This article first appeared in Dawn.