Islamic State along Durand Line prompts new regional alliances – I
by Ramtanu Maitra on 11 Jan 2017 0 Comment

Locked in fierce battles with Russia, Iran, Syria and a hesitant United States and trying to protect the territory it seized in the Levant, the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is losing ground rapidly. According to an IHS Markit report released on Oct. 9, the Islamic State’s caliphate shrank during 2015 from 90,800 km2 to 78,000 km2, a net loss of 14 percent. And in the first nine months of 2016, that territory shrank by another 16 percent. As of Oct. 3, the Islamic State was left with control of roughly 65,500 km2 in Iraq and Syria, an area roughly the size of Sri Lanka, the report notes.


As the Syrian troops, under cover of heavy Russian air attacks, have begun to close in on areas held by ISIS and other rebel groups, it is likely that the so-called Islamic State will continue to lose ground in the coming months, stalling the group’s growth in that region. Yet with thousands of fighters - most of whom are Arabs, fortified by a large retinue of Caucasians and Central Asians and a smattering of fighters from elsewhere - ISIS may shrink but is not likely to vanish.


Carrying black flags and promoting a hateful brand of anti-Shi’a Islam, this virulent group could show up in force in those Islamic countries where governance is weak. One such location could be the Maghreb region of North Africa; another is the virtually ungoverned region that stretches between eastern and southeastern Afghanistan and Pakistan’s Federally-Administered Tribal Area (FATA).


In fact, available ground reports indicate that alleged followers of ISIS have already begun to appear in eastern Afghanistan under the name of the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP). Though they are few in number, disunited and lacking both known sponsors and known connections to ISIS at this time - the emergence of these fighters over the past several years seems to be prompting something of a realignment in the greater South Asia region vis-à-vis the Taliban. In particular, Iran, Pakistan, China, Russia and Kabul appear to be converging around support for that Pushtun-dominated terrorist grouping - which has been viewed for more than a decade as the primary obstacle to peace in war-torn Afghanistan by both Kabul and its various allies - as a bulwark against the ISKP and Islamic State inroads.


What is going on? What is at stake? What do these developments actually mean? For answers, we need to take a much closer look.


Differences and Commonalities


Before diving into the details of the ISKP’s appearance and the consequences of that, it is worth making several general observations concerning the main players: the ISKP, the Taliban, the Kabul elites and, of course, Pakistan.


First, the name ISKP, itself, gives pause. The KP refers to the historical Khorasan province - a vast swath of land, only a small part of which now exists within Iran in the form of three provinces, North Khorasan, Razavi Khorasan and South Khorasan. Up to the nineteenth century, the historical Khorasan stretched from northeastern Iran eastward through most of Afghanistan.


There can hardly be serious concern that the small band of ISKP fighters will ever develop enough muscle to wrest any part of the historical province from Iran. They have not yet developed a direct link with the ISIS fighters who are battling for their lives in the Levant. So far, the only known link between the two groups is that the ISKP fighters have raised the ISIS flag and pledged their allegiance to the ISIS Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Further, like ISIS, these fighters are mostly Salafi Sunnis who have taken up the cause of annihilating the “heretic” Shi’as to purify Islam.


To assert at this time that ISKP is part of ISIS is a stretch. The birth of ISIS was a complex phenomenon aided by a mix of the colonial West’s mistreatment of Arabs in their own Islamic land, a full-scale military invasion of Iraq and Libya by the United States in the early part of this millennium and the Washington-London-Paris-Riyadh-led efforts to undermine Iran and Russia by helping disgruntled Syrians by all means, including violent ones, to change the regime in Damascus.


Though also complex, very different circumstances and dynamics have given birth to the ISKP. Broadly speaking, as we shall see, the ISKP is a product of Pakistan’s endless meddling in Afghan affairs, driven as Islamabad is by its obsession to control its neighbor, and Kabul’s utter inability to bring back security and stability to its war-torn society.


The internal conflict, that began decades ago between Kabul and the Taliban, within Afghanistan, remains as destructive as ever. Over the years, the Taliban (once heavily funded by the Saudis and armed by the Pakistanis) and various anti-Taliban militant groups such as the ISKP, have broken down the societal and tribal infrastructure that had kept the loosely-bound Afghan society in harmony for centuries.


Significantly, however, the ISKP, the Taliban and the elites in Kabul do have one thing in common: they are all Pushtuns. True, they have differences: the elites are identified as believers in a “moderate” form of Islam who have financial and cultural ties to London, Paris and Washington; the Taliban is an orthodox group of Sunni-Islamic organizations that belong to the Hanafi school of Islam and are imbued with Pushtun sectarian-nationalism; and the ISKP is dominated by the Salafis, who want to establish a caliphate in the historical Khorasan province. Despite these differences, however, all three groups of players want Afghanistan to be “Pushtunland,” brushing aside the vast number of non-Pushtun Afghans (who, together, form the majority and consider Afghanistan to be their land as much as the Pushtuns’).


Over the years, Pakistan has succeeded in exploiting the differences and common interests of these three groups, playing one group against the other for tactical advantage. And all the while those in power in Kabul have always “wanted” to trust Pakistan because, like them, Islamabad/Rawalpindi wants the Pushtuns to dominate and control Afghanistan.


The Birth of ISKP: A Summary


Although the exact nature of the ISKP and level of its potency as a military power remain murky, most observers more or less agree on how it evolved within Afghanistan. According to Borhan Osman of the Afghan Analysts Network (AAN), many of today’s ISKP fighters were, in fact, Pakistanis “who had long been settled in the southeastern districts of Nangarhar, in the Spin Ghar mountains or its foothills, bordering the tribal agencies on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line.” Before joining ISKP, these militants operated under different names under the umbrella of the loosely assembled Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).


Let’s back up for a moment to get some context. First, it is widely acknowledged that the Pakistani military, through its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) outfit, has long been a patron of the Afghan Taliban. Pakistan’s objective has been to protect the Afghan Taliban, including providing shelter inside Pakistan as and when needed, in order to keep Kabul in line and to weaken New Delhi’s influence there.


Just a year ago, in January 2016, then-ISKP head Hafez Saeed Khan, former chief of the TTP’s Orakzai branch in Pakistan’s tribal areas, told the ISIS mouthpiece, Dabiq, that the Pakistan-based terrorist outfit involved in masterminding the 2008 attack in Mumbai, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), and the Afghan Taliban follow the dictates of Pakistan’s ISI. (Hafez Saeed Khan was killed in a U.S. drone strike on July 26, 2016.) Pakistan’s support to the Afghan Taliban is so widely known, and has been spelled out by Kabul so many times, that many Afghans call the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, set up in 1996 by the Taliban, the “ISI Emirate.”


In 2001, following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11, the Pakistani military made a show of helping the Americans to weed out the Taliban, but it was a smokescreen and Washington chose to look the other way. This two-timing policy allowed Islamabad /Rawalpindi to bring hundreds of Taliban fighters, who would otherwise have been eliminated by U.S. forces and their Northern Alliance allies, into Pakistan for protection.


This two-timing policy encouraged emergence of a group of defiant-Pushtuns within Pakistan. This came to surface violently in July of 2007 when hundreds of religious zealots, many of whom were Pushtuns, were killed at the Lal Masjid in Islamabad following an army raid. The controversial cleric and leader of Lal Masjid, Maulana Abdul Aziz, fled the area wearing a burqa, while his younger brother, Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi, died within the Masjid complex. Some analysts claim the incident catalyzed the formation of the TTP within FATA and the Swat Valley.


Five months later, in December 2007, at least a dozen groups of anti-Islamabad dissidents from Pakistan’s FATA joined hands somewhere in the South Waziristan Agency to form the TTP under the umbrella of a tribal leader, Baitullah Mehsud. The group’s objective at the time was to retaliate against the NATO forces based in Afghanistan, to punish Islamabad /Rawalpindi for the Lal Masjid massacre and for joining hands with the non-Muslim NATO and the United States against fellow Pushtun brothers located on the other side of the non-existent Durand Line. Housed along the non-demarcated Durand Line in FATA, these TTP   fighters were anti-Islamabad /Rawalpindi. These were identified by Islamabad as “bad Taliban.”


To begin with, Pushtuns residing in FATA never trusted the Punjabi-controlled Pakistani military, and they resisted efforts by Pakistani authorities to change their distinctive way of life. In some districts of FATA, these tribes and sub-tribes rule the roost, and they were the seed bed for Pakistan’s “bad Taliban,” which emerged in the form of the TTP in 2007.


Over the years, these “bad Taliban” carried out a series of major operations inside Pakistan, often targeting Pakistani military bases, education centers and various accessories of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Under pressure, the Punjabi-dominated Pakistani military launched operations in different areas of FATA. While the Pakistani authorities’ objective was, in part, to kill off some of these Pushtun tribal leaders associated with the TTP, the other, no less significant objective was to drive them into Afghanistan.


A majority of the ISKP militants have arrived in Nangarhar since 2010, mainly from the Orakzai, North Waziristan and Khyber tribal agencies. According to local residents, the first groups moved into Afghanistan, often with their families, to flee military operations by the Pakistani army that year. They settled in the Achin, Nazian, Kot, Deh Bala, Rodat and Ghanikhel districts, among others.


Calling themselves muhajerin (refugees) in search of shelter, they invoked support from the local communities in Nangarhar who deemed it their moral obligation to extend a helping hand to their Pushtun brothers escaping violence in their home towns. The “refugees” also opened madrassas and schools for their children in Achin and Nazian. (“The Islamic State in ‘Khorasan’: How it Began and Where It Stands Now in Nangarhar,” Borhan Osman, AAN, 27 July 2016.)


(To be continued…)

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