In January 2015, the Islamic State (IS), in a statement, called on the militants operating in the Af-Pak region to pledge their allegiance to their chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his ‘Caliphate’. They declared ‘Wilayat Khurasan’ as active, and appointed former Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) commander Hafiz Saeed Khan as the ‘Wali’ of Khurasan.
The IS identifies ‘Khurasan’ as certain areas in present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Central Asia, India, and China. At the heart of this region lies the troubled Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and IS entry into this region will undoubtedly change several long-standing dynamics in the region’s many conflicts involving State and non-State actors.
The IS poses a serious threat to an Afghanistan that has just begun to take baby steps towards normalcy – because several terrorists strewn across the country have pledged allegiance. The IS has potential inroads in Western Afghanistan via Farah and Faryab Provinces. In eastern Afghanistan, IS supporters are already indulging in violence in Logar, Ghazni, Parwan and Zabul provinces.
However, despite the seriousness of the threat that Afghanistan faces from the IS, it is via Pakistan that a possible solution to halt and end the IS ingress can be found. It is not child’s play to enter and establish a terrorist outfit in the Af-Pak region without the patronage of the Pakistani army – which is far from keen on having a new group enter the fray.
A Musical Chair of Regional Dynamics
The IS’ entry has brought to fore an important issue: jihadists in the Af-Pak region, Pakistan in particular, have for long been in flux due to the frustrations rising from identity-crises, endgames, loyalties and relevance. This has resulted in a tendency to factionalise frequently.
Since June 2014, the Pakistani government has been carrying out Operation Zarb-e-Azb, a systematic offensive targeting and eliminating militants and terrorist groups along the Durand Line. The Operation has seen some positive results – and the Pakistani military appears to be making the most of the divisions underway among various terrorist outfits in the region. However, while this factionalism is proving useful for the Pakistani military in eliminating terrorists, the same fault-lines are being harnessed by the IS to gain a foothold in the region. Those militants who were flushed out of Pakistan due to this Operation are among many, along with some disgruntled former Afghan Taliban members, who have pledged allegiances to the IS.
The Afghan Taliban and the IS supporters in the region are already at loggerheads and the battle for control of the regions between the various groups is getting serious. More importantly, the Khurasan Council comprises mostly of Pakistani jihadists. Mullah Omar is the Afghan Taliban’s Amir-ul-Momineen, whereas the IS rejects Omar’s credentials. The al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, the TTP and other groups all have varying priorities.
And for the several young terrorists who are evidently frustrated by the lack of clarity in the agendas of al Qaeda and the Taliban, the IS is an option that offers structure and set goals and targets.
If the Pakistani army continues to exploit factionalism among the terrorists, it risks sending them straight into the IS’ hands. In fact, the cover story of the 6th issue of the IS’ official magazine, Dabiq, titled ‘Al-Qa’idah of Waziristan’, is an elaborate account by a former al Qaeda operative who lambasts the group by elaborating on its ‘flaws’.
The IS too also realises that that which is advantageous for them at the moment – factionalism – has the potential to bring great disadvantages in the future. The IS statement therefore addresses this issue by calling on the militants to “abandon disunity and factionalism.”
Regional Geopolitical Shuffle
The IS’s apparently steady entry into the region is likely to shuffle relationships not just between non-State actors but also State actors. Pakistan and Afghanistan have already set forth towards cooperation on counter-terrorism. The Pakistan-Iran relationship, long defined by their individual relationships with Saudi Arabia, will have to take a new character – one that is defined by mutual interests; neither party can afford otherwise. There is no good or bad Taliban. Pakistan must start thinking laterally for solutions. They will have to balance their fight with the IS while also curbing radicalism and extremism from within – especially vis-à-vis the sectarian schism. Counter-strategies must be simultaneously coordinated, nationally and collectively as a region. The roles of Iran and the Central Asian States are vital, and cannot be overlooked.
The IS will tread a delicate line in Af-Pak, especially in Pakistan. If they manage to establish themselves firmly in Pakistan, they cannot continue without uniting all the militant groups in Pakistan; and simultaneously, the easiest way to acquire support is by exploiting the burgeoning factionalism within the militant groups in the Af-Pak region. An alternative route the IS could adopt is to take measured steps and not gamble away the goldmine they want to acquire.
But, will the IS take the quick route in or is it willing to wait it out? Regional responses to the looming IS threat will have to be charted on these lines. Interestingly, in Af-Pak, the IS is following the same trajectory al Qaeda did two decades ago. Does that mean those charting counter-strategies are working on familiar territory? Or will the IS treat the South Asian jihadists as expendable assets?
More importantly, answers must be found for why the IS is attempting to establish control in regions geographically separated from its headquarters and that are not under its control.