The Buzz

Has ISIS Invaded Afghanistan?

The growing geographic spread of ISIS has lately been part of the news chatter in tabloids and respected papers alike.

We know ISIS has tried to spread its propaganda to Pakistan and Afghanistan since late 2014 and proclaimed its leadership of that region in early January, with members of the Pakistani Taliban claiming loyalty to the group. One of ISIS's Afghan commanders who was in a recruitment video aimed at the region was killed at the end of January, and another was allegedly arrested by the Afghan Taliban.

However, police in Afghanistan's Ghazni province, where ISIS was reported to be fighting, recently denied the group had a presence there.

Nevertheless, many Afghan Government officials, Afghan analysts with links to Government, and some civil society activists I spoke to last year are set on making the case that ISIS is operating in Afghanistan. Their counterparts across the border in Pakistan seem to be less concerned, even if the link between the Pakistani Taliban and ISIS is ostensibly stronger.

Others however, remain skeptical, and the Taliban website has been suspiciously silent on the matter. Australia's Foreign Minister has been cautious about acknowledging an ISIS presence in Afghanistan (possibly because there is about as much evidence for its presence in Australia, considering the Sydney siege and two individuals arrested before they could strike), though the Australian Government continues to warn that ISIS may expand its operations to Afghanistan in the future.

The question is, why should we even bother looking for ISIS in Afghanistan?

Afghanistan is in enough trouble already, and for what it's worth it has had an “Islamic state” for much longer than Syria or Iraq. After all, the Taliban officially goes by name Islamic Emirate, and has thus long laid claim to the “Islamic state” brand. The fact that ISIS called itself the “Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham” might actually be a nod of acknowledgment from one quasi-state to another that such an ambition is already established in Afghanistan.

Though much has been made of the similarities between ISIS and the Taliban, such as their focus on conquering territory, maintaining an army and governing structure (all trademarks of states), they are not the same.

The Afghan Taliban still draws the majority of its recruits from within Afghanistan's Pashtun tribal structure, though it is known to also collaborate with many other ethnic and terrorist groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. There have been suggestions of Arabic trainers and mentors in Afghanistan, but generally Afghans have not liked them. Sunni Muslims have long been a majority in Afghanistan (no underdog status as in Iraq) and any sectarian problems have been predominantly of an ethnic nature, involving the Shia Hazara minority group.

Rather than looking for ISIS, I worry more about Afghanistan's other problems, which provide ample space to breed more extremist and criminal groups, and should be addressed both by the Afghan Government and the international community.

The Afghan Taliban is losing command and control, and its self-financing structure has seen it morph more into a criminal group than an insurgency. A recent UN report argued that the Taliban was acting more like a 'godfather' than a 'government in waiting', something Gretchen Peterson argued in 2009 when she compared the Taliban to the Sopranos minus the chianti. The Taliban leadership has long denied fragmentation and emphasized its unwavering command and control. On the ground however, the story is different, and many Afghans resent the fact that some fighters no longer practice as their leadership preaches.

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