Are ISIS recruits in Afghanistan a threat to Pakistan?

Published: February 13, 2016
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ISIS emerged from al Qaeda's one-time branch in Iraq, and initially fought alongside. PHOTO: AFP

Afghanistan can perhaps be labelled as one of the most war affected country in the world. Peace has seldom been achieved since the Soviet invasion. After the end of the Soviet occupation, the country saw severe infighting over power which led to major internal armed conflicts.

The fact that Afghan groups who took arms against the former USSR but later turned to each other for support is not a surprising story. By nature, Afghans are a tough people, they have further been hardened by a war they fought against an extremely powerful foe.

It was only natural all major players involved in the Afghan jihad saw themselves fit to lead the nation and reign supreme as well. Many of these warlords were mostly interested in serving their own purposes, rather than work towards the greater good of the locals.

But this changed after the rise of the Taliban in the mid-90s.

Within a few months, a major part of the country was under Taliban rule. They were received in a mixed manner by the locals. While they were severely disliked for their unnecessarily strict policies, especially towards women, they were able to bring relative peace and calm to the areas under their rule.

Typically, the Taliban drew support from the Pakhtun regions, but barely had any support from the Persian speaking regions. If they would have managed to garner more support from local Pakhtuns, the Taliban may have survived as a government in the longer run.

However, their support for the al Qaeda operatives and Osama bin Laden in particular, proved to be their downfall. It may seem strange that the Taliban allowed their government to go down protecting these foreign fighters who may not have even shared common ideologies.

It was perhaps this particular move which led to a greater conflict and the eventual downfall of the Taliban.

It is also worth noting that during the Afghan jihad and the events which followed, there was never a shortage of people willing to pick up arms. Most were not locals; they came from different parts of the world. They were professional mercenaries up for hire who once used to call Afghanistan their home.

Even today, there are foreign fighters present in Afghanistan. Most of them are associated with the Taliban and other similar organisations. Looking at it from the perspective of a growing menace called ISIS; this can prove to be an extremely grave situation.

A look into ISIS

The rise of ISIS is a rather recent phenomenon. Their ideology appears to be based on pure violence and hatred towards everyone. Horror stories of these militants killing scores of civilians just for the sake of it, have surfaced on multiple occasions. Although they seem to be targeting minorities more, their recent killings have shown that they have little place for fellow Muslims in their Takfiri ideology.

They have also been active in promoting gruesome acts through the internet. There are no qualms about the fact that they are hungry for violence and are unapologetic about it.

Apart from being a terror organisation, ISIS is also a large business entity. They are generating massive revenue through Syrian oil fields they control. As per an estimate, they are producing between 34,000 and 40,000 barrels of crude oil each day. They have the means to spend on the wars they have waged in parts of Syria and Iraq. If they want, they can expand their war beyond these two countries as well.

This terrorist organisation has been able to recruit fighters from practically every nook and corner of the world, including countries where the standard of living is high. They have been building forces through recruitment. For now, they do not seem interested in training their resources. Youth from the UK in particular have been arrested trying to board flights to nearby destinations intending to join the movement.

Recent developments

In recent times, they took responsibility for some of the terror attacks that took place over the world, including the multiple bombings in Paris. To counter them, several countries including Russia, USA and France have bombed their sites with a fair degree of success.

Russia in particular, has been severe in its action and has taken out plenty of infrastructure including ammunition depots, resulting in the damage of ISIS’s resources. A sustained action on these lines can cause long term damage to ISIS.

Presence in Afghanistan

There are reports of the presence of ISIS in Afghanistan. Given that, the country has proven to be an ideal address for mercenaries and plenty are still calling it home. Since they are guns for hire, the highest bidder usually wins. It is through this that ISIS has recruited a small group of militants in Afghanistan.

However, they have been pushed back not only by the Afghan forces and ISAF, but also by the Taliban and leftover factions of al Qaeda. For the former, it is a matter of national security and a potential long term threat. For the latter, it is a battle of survival and a turf war. In the current scenario, ISIS can certainly not thrive and will be defeated.

Future possibilities

The future of this terrorist organisation in Afghanistan can actually be less gloomy. But how?

Al Qaeda has largely been disintegrated and with most of the top leadership eliminated over the years, it is unlikely that they will be able to fight ISIS for long.

After the death of founder Mullah Omar, the Taliban have been facing a major leadership crisis. Reports of infighting in the organisation have been making headlines and a major split can take place in the near future. The speculation is that Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, the current leader of the organisation, was recently injured as a result of internal strife.

Even though there are plenty of ideological members in the organisation, not everyone is interested in just those principles. Sooner or later someone will take their shot at grabbing power. This can actually be a major source of help for ISIS, as they can engage the services of such individuals and groups.

Despite maintaining a decent grip on the country, the civilian government does not have a strong hold on all the areas, and safe havens for miscreants still exist. Such places are ideal camping grounds for ISIS. Recruiting locals from these areas will be quite easy.

Potential effects on the neighbours

Iran and Pakistan are two of the neighbours who are most likely to be affected by such an event. ISIS has a clear agenda against Shias and they will be motivated to take the Islamic Republic on. Iran has the means to tackle the problem, but general safety and security in the country can deteriorate as a result.

Their presence in Afghanistan can also help them reach Pakistan with the help of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Some factions of the TTP have already pledged their allegiance to ISIS citing a commonality of ideology.

The porous border between the countries has always made travelling of militants easy. This has allowed them to trouble both the nations and flee during tough times as well. Afghan ISIS can surely benefit from this situation and create trouble on both sides of the Durand Line.

The current military operation in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) region by the Pakistan army has reduced the likelihood of such events. However factions of TTP are still in play and they can wait out this tough period by mixing in with the local populace. A less potent yet troublesome militant outfit can be a result of these conditions

Proactive approach is the need of the hour

The world needs to come together to tackle the ISIS threat. Differences between nations need to be put aside for now and this evil has to be eliminated. It is crucial that the areas in Iraq and Syria under the control of this terrorist organisation are freed. Furthermore, the oil money they are using to finance their efforts should be taken away from them.

Elimination of the top leadership including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is imperative. Once the think-tank collapses, it is often hard to replace it. Al Qaeda’s downfall is a clear cut example from a very recent time.

Purely in context of Afghanistan, the only way to counter the ISIS threat is to bring peace to the country. Al Qaeda needs to be eliminated; a task that may not be as hard anymore. The Afghan government and Taliban are interested in talks, which is great progress for the region.

Success of these negotiations can help Afghanistan prosper and get rid of the ISIS threat. The conditions of war are what allows the nurseries of terror to grow. If the conditions are peaceful in general, it will be hard for exiting groups to create rumpus. Fewer men will be available for recruitment, denying these elements a chance to damage the country.

A peace accord between the two parties is also crucial since it will allow the civilian government to focus its energy on the new emerging threat instead of fighting multiple fronts. Taliban can also benefit from a new found legitimacy and can convert into a political faction instead of an armed force.

The world in general and the US in particular will have to play its part in ensuring the whole process is completed. At the moment ISIS is confined to some limited areas, but it has the motivation and finances to become a dangerous force over the next few years. The only way to counter this threat is by choking the life out of this menace right now.

Ambreen Sikander

Ambreen Sikander

The author has M.Phil degree in European Studies from University of Karachi. She is currently working as Content Editor for a news channel and tweets at @Carpe_Di3m_

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Feroz

    Why should ISIS recruits in Afghanistan threaten Pakistan ? ISIS will find more recruits in Pakistan to threaten Pakistan, those recruited in Afghanistan will create mayhem there.Recommend

  • Parvez

    Firstly I feel we should stop using the term ISIS as it gives them a sense of legitimacy, while in fact they are neither a state nor recognized. A better term is DAESH which loosely means a religious bigot who has no compunctions of using brute force to enforce his view.
    The Deash mindset is very prevalent in Pakistan…..as a matter of fact a rabid cleric extols the virtues of Deash sitting in the heart of Islamabad and the government vacillates on doing anything about it. If we put our house in order managing external threats would be simpler.Recommend

  • Keyboard Soldier

    The current saudi clan along with a local cleric called abdul wahab took over what we call saudi arabia exactly the way isis is taking over iraq.
    ISIS is no different from Saudi Arabia in terms of theology, and Pakistani establishment has sided with their ideology from day one to generate a sense of national identity.
    Therefore, Pakistan need not worry about an ideology which has had its roots here since its very creation.Recommend

  • Teddy Dillon

    Ambreen Sikander. To the author: I like your article. I am curious do you have degree? I’ve had trouble finding qualifications online. I would like to use your article in a debate but I would like confirmation of your qualification.Recommend

  • John

    no offence, but there is no relevancy between your topic and contentRecommend

  • rationalist

    Don’t worry. These ISIS terrorists will be turned into foreign policy strategic assets.Recommend

  • Abdullah khan

    I don’t agree with that Afghan govt and taliban agreement will stop ISIS presence in Afghanistan, the Afghans are very poor people and there is no opportunity to earn money through fair practice, and every Afghan is interested to earn big chunk of money in short time so the ordinary taliban and war Lords sitting in government will join the ISIS in future, they are interested in money not in ideologies, and they are uneducated and don’t know other skill except gun so they will try to continue their attacks on both sides of Durand line, they will be interested in extortion and kidnapping for ransom in Pakistan and will fight in Afghanistan for maali ghanematRecommend

  • Salim Alvi

    Why Pakistanis worry about ISIS, afterall first IS Anglos created is Pakistan. Anglos are very skilled in use of Islam as weapon of mass destruction of natives of Asia & Africa.Recommend