By Brett Daniel Shehadey
Special Correspondent for In Homeland Security
The black Islamist State flag was recently raised in parts of Afghanistan under the promise that the Taliban is not up to the task of regaining power. Open news sources are reporting a small terrorist-on-terrorist campaign that is picking up pace in a race for insurgent dominance and territory.
The Islamic State has inspired foreigners to speak in mosques with translators, according to locals. Local Islamic State offshoots are spoken by locals as strategic, organized and funded. However, it is questioned to what extent the Islamic State in the Middle East has control over these local elements. After all, the Khrosan Shura, a council of Islamic leaders to oversee the Islamic State’s affairs in Pakistan and Afghanistan, was announced at the beginning of the year and is composed of mostly former Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan leaders. Thus, to the elements of the Pakistani Taliban are morphing into the Islamic State or defecting may in fact be a bit of both. Afghanistan has proven more resistant and the movement smaller, while persistent.
The Islamic State grows in Afghanistan through grassroots Islamic political movements: preaching and handing out letters and tracts. It uses money and an assumed superior Islamic authority over the local jihad to sway the youth and discontented Taliban. They burn the opium fields, which are the lifeline for the Taliban insurgency. They fight the opposition tooth-and-nail in some parts and assemble a small arsenal with mounted weapons on trucks and dress in black clad.
In some ways, the appeal is nothing more than an outpouring of success of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. They have spread into Yemen and Africa and Europe as well. The lone wolves appear to be active sympathizers as plants or in transit but where the group settles in operation with an active jihadist campaign, all successes are watched by would-be sympathizers in other movements. The Taliban is no exception but a concerted effort on the part of self-proclaimed Caliph, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi appears to be targeting Pakistan and Afghanistan with greater effort. Even if such “command and control” elements are missing or uncertain, the threat is nonetheless real and the objective is being raised and prioritized locally.
Unfortunately, the Afghan and Western security officials are slow to acknowledge the Islamic State as a major threat to Afghanistan at this point and are reportedly focusing their efforts on Taliban. The Taliban by far is the predominant terrorist/insurgent group and security threat. This could change, however, as the Islamic State is both cunning and opportunist: relaxing certain heavy restrictions in Afghanistan, banning others, winning the hearts and minds and slowly eroding the power of a distracted enemy, while itself, not fully yet in the crosshairs.
This month, chief executive officer of Afghanistan Abdullah Abdullah claimed the Islamic State was a real threat to the country and the security personnel and blamed the previous administrations for allowing the conditions for the foreign group’s insertion.
The central government in Kabul is wrestling with an ongoing Taliban insurgency and things are hot in Nangarhar. Provincial council chief Ahmad Ali Hazrat and member of parliament Haji Hazrat Ali, claim that the Islamic State now holds at least six of the 21 districts in Nangarhar. They are steeling districts of influence from the Taliban. Two more districts are contested between the rivals: Khogyani and Pachir Agam.
The so-called turf war extends in Afghanistan extends beyond the Nangarhar Province. Early this year, jihadists claiming to be the Islamic State, killed a Taliban commander named Abdul Ghani in Logar Province.
During that same time, in Helmand Province, former Taliban commander named Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim was reportedly leading some 300 Islamic State fighters, according to The Diplomat.
While important not to overblow and overestimate the chances of Islamic State infiltrating the ranks of the Taliban or accelerating the insurgency in Afghanistan and terror in Pakistan, it is vital not to underestimate this development as well.
It might be very well that the Islamic State will die down. It may be that even a dedicated task force to uproot its latest positions in the Afghan-Pakistan theater will not be enough. This is because the Islamic State continues to win the Taliban human terrain with political propaganda and one-to-one, as well as social meetings. It gains popularity as well as opportunistically takes advantage of the strategic terrain and uses selective cartel-style violence against opponents or integrates them with patient, gradual, sophistication.
It may not be possible to fight this type of battle unless Kabul and Islamabad are willing to send their missionary soldiers to walk those same forbidden streets.