The change in US national security and defence policy with a focus on great power competition has put Afghanistan in an area of lesser focus. The US’s primary efforts to counter China and Russia have led counter-terrorism efforts to slide down from its priority list. Meanwhile, terrorism has been increasing since the Afghan Taliban took hold of Kabul last year. The changing circumstances in Afghanistan are advancing new stress on regional states to bear more cooperation.
The fragile economy and weak law and order situation in the country is pushing Afghanistan into an abyss. While no effective policies have been witnessed at the hand of Taliban rulers except control of women. Although, the Taliban claim to have the situation under control just like the government in Iraq believed as US forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011 only to come back in 2013 to confront ISIS.
Understanding the matter better
The de-facto rulers of Afghanistan are repeating the mistake once committed by the Iraqi government under PM Nuri al-Maliki. The dysfunctional political system and exclusionary policies of Maliki played a vital role in bringing directionless Sunnis into the ISIS fold. Meanwhile, the Taliban are excluding the other ethnicities in the country forcing them to accept the Taliban regime.
As the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) stands as one of the most concerning geopolitical developments in recent decades. The group’s thirst for blood owes much to the violence that predominated during the Saddam era and especially after the US invasion.
Considering ISIS flourishment because of broken regional politics, and frayed state institutions, the Taliban led Afghanistan has already been a prepared nursery for such organizations to establish their strong repute. Although ISIS had lost its caliphate, its affiliates are still operating across the globe. In 2015, ISIS expanded into a network of affiliates in at least eight other countries. While its threat is no more serious than in South Asia.
How does ISKP pose a threat to the region?
ISKP is an ISIS affiliate in South and Central Asia, founded by elements of the terrorist group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in Afghanistan’s Nangahar province in late 2014.
According to the former Ashraf Ghani-led Afghan government, there are about 1,000 ISIL fighters in the country. Many experts suggest that the ISKP had between 2,500 and 8,500 militants in Afghanistan at its height in 2016. Due to several operations against ISKP, their ranks have dwindled to roughly 2,000-4,000 militants by late 2019.
Although, the capacity of the Islamic State Khurasan (ISKP) for violent attacks decreased due to the operations by US Forces, former Afghan National Security and Defense Forces (ANDSF), and the Afghan Taliban. However, the group is still carrying out attacks in Afghanistan, as the Taliban continues to fight for international legitimacy. The group has been trying to capitalize on the political situation in the country to increase its foothold in the region.
For the last many decades, Afghanistan has been a source of instability and terrorism across the region. The withdrawal of foreign troops and the fall of Kabul last August have further exacerbated the security situation in the region. The Taliban are now at the helm of power trying to stir Afghanistan in a different direction. Meanwhile, other terrorist groups especially ISKP are now trying to gain a foothold to conduct their merciless terrorist campaign.
Subsequently, the number of deaths due to terrorism in South Asia has increased by eight per cent in 2021 to 1,829. Pakistan and Afghanistan are among the 10 most-affected countries due to the rising number of terrorist attacks. Pakistan has witnessed an uptick in terrorist attacks by 5% in 2021 whereas Afghanistan witnessed the deadliest attack since 2007 at Kabul International airport, which killed 170 individuals and injured over 200. Similarly, ISKP was responsible for the greatest number of casualties in Afghanistan in 2021. It has also launched 32 attacks against its rival, the Afghan Taliban since they took power in August 2021.
Besides that, ISKP has broadened its operation in Central Asia to recruit more members for the organization. Since 2011, between 2,000 and 4,000 Central Asian citizens have migrated to Syria and Iraq to join militant groups there. Now with the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, these fighters are likely to move to Afghanistan to join ISKP.
According to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the battle-hardened ISIS fighters have been arriving from Iraq and Syria into Afghanistan since the Taliban took power last year. Additionally, local terrorist groups such as JammatAnsurallah, the Islamic Jihad Union, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which declared allegiance to the Islamic State in 2015 are emboldened by the rise of ISKP and threaten the security and stability in Central Asian states.
Other regional countries including China and Russia face separatism in Xinjiang province and the North Caucasus especially in Chechnya respectively. The fighters from the Xinjiang-based East Turkestan Movement (ETM) have been joining the ISKP, a fearful development for China. Concurrently, Iran experienced a brunt of instability flowing from its border with Afghanistan. At the same time, ISKP being a Sunni extremist terrorist group with an anti-Shia tendency is an enemy of Iran, a logic that has forced Iran to fight ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
Countering ISKP in Afghanistan
The Taliban-led Afghanistan is weak, directionless and economically fragile. It has few resources to undergo a counter-terrorism campaign against the ISKP, an imperative to take a regional response to this menace.
Meanwhile, the effective strategy to counter ISKP is to increase the role of regional cooperation under the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). The SCO is a platform with the fundamental goal to promote regional security, peace, and stability. Its permanent body of Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) established in 2001 oversees the cooperation of member-states to combat terrorism, separatism, and extremism.
RATS provides an opportunity for member states to establish direct security cooperation to counter ISKP. Likewise, various levels of expertise in countering terrorism amongst member states can help them to coordinate more joint counter-terrorism exercises to share expertise.
The Afghan Contact Group (ACG), established under the SCO in 2005, could lead to further cooperation with Afghanistan on matters of mutual concern, including counterterrorism.
Further SCO should encourage the Afghan Taliban to cultivate an inclusive political arrangement to stabilize the country. Only the Taliban led government in Afghanistan will be a seed for instability as other ethnicities feel marginalized which can push them to resist against Taliban militarily.
Although SCO has not taken a proactive role in Afghanistan, the time has come to bear the responsibility. Being a regional organization, it can’t stay on the back foot for a longer time. The regional countries can’t bear the cost of instability in Afghanistan, as it is an area of the collective interest of SCO members. With a clear set of issues like poverty, narcotics, extremism, and terrorism at the top, Afghanistan’s security and economic conditions directly affect the interests of each SCO member.
The presence of ISKP is an issue that must be addressed first for a stable and prosperous region. In this regard, the coming mid-May meeting of the SCO-RATS council in Delhi is encouraging. Moreover, the meeting must lay out an effective framework to counter terrorist threats emanating from Afghanistan. Concurrently, the ISKP permits the US, the Taliban, and regional governments to collaborate to create a security framework to combat this threat. The regional countries have no choice but to demonstrate their willingness to dismantle ISKP hideouts from Afghanistan.
The article appeared earlier in Global Village Space
Syed Ali Abbas is a Research Assistant at the Center for International Strategic Studies Islamabad and co-founding editor of Global Defense Insight. He tweets @smalinaqvi05.