This past week, some interesting reporting regarding the evolution of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) centered around the group’s announcement of opening “offices” in Afghanistan. This maneuver reflects a considerable shift in strategic goals for ISIS. Though rhetoric thus far has maintained the group’s ultimate pursuit of the establishment of a Caliphate that would comprise territory from India westward to Africa and Europe, ISIS has largely been confined to Syria until this past summer when it overran the Iraqi city of Mosul and threatened to destabilize the Kurdish north. Massacres of ethnic minorities brought the advance of ISIS to the eyes of the world as Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims were rounded up and slaughtered with seeming abandon by ISIS fighters.
Adam Taylor wrote of the metamorphosis of ISIS beyond the Levant for the Washington Post on September 26th:
Radio Free Afghanistan reported Friday that they were recently sent a video that appears to show three masked militants in Afghanistan declaring themselves the Islamic Organization of Great Afghanistan and pledging allegiance to their “caliph” Baghdadi and the Islamic State. Notably, the group, wearing masks and appearing in front of a black flag like that used by the Islamic State, say the Taliban is working for Pakistan, which many Afghans believe has designs on their country. (Taylor, The Washington Post, September 26)
While ISIS shares a common enemy with al-Qaeda (the West), there are important distinctions to be made between the two groups in tactics, capability, and overarching strategy. While the al-Qaeda “brand” has been devalued in recent years with the high profile killing of its leader, Osama Bin Laden, and the continued routing of its command and control through drone strikes in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan, it remains in some ways “the vanguard” of the global Islamist movement. Al-Qaeda has recently begun re-assessing its own strategic objectives and has methodically begun supporting more regional jihadist groups such as those in Africa. In this way, ISIS stands to fill a void in carrying the banner for the global Islamist movement. The Radio Free Afghanistan article illuminates these possible fissures through the identification of the person announcing the presence of ISIS, an Afghan with an accent identifying a Pashtun man from Ghazni Province:
One sign came this week in a video sent to RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan that shows three purported Afghan militants, their faces covered, sitting beneath the black IS battle flag.
Speaking in the Ghazni dialect of Pashto, the trio’s spokesperson claimed to represent a group called the Islamic Organization of Great Afghanistan and stated his readiness to fight for the IS and its “caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The unidentified spokesperson called for all militants in Afghanistan, the Pashtun tribal areas in Pakistan, and in the Baluch areas of Pakistan and Iran to join together under the IS banner.
At times, however, he appeared as much focused on his own nationalistic agenda as the Islamic State’s goal of uniting all Muslim lands in a new caliphate. He repeatedly called for attacks on the “Punjabi state” of Pakistan and accused the Afghan Taliban’s leaders of working for Islamabad’s interests, while praising IS as the only power able to “free” his countrymen. (Charles Recknagel, Radio Free Afghanistan, September 26)
If we are to assume (if only for the sake of this debate) that ISIS has indeed moved to secure new operational ground in Afghanistan, a few important questions arise as a result:
- What objectives are driving ISIS to suddenly spread its operational planning to Afghanistan?
- ISIS moved into Mosul with a ferocity that admittedly surprised intelligence services in the United States, Great Britain, and France. How is this explained? If the intelligence services of three of the most prominent military powers in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) failed to adequately assess the growing size of the group’s ranks and neglected to anticipate its surge into Iraq, has this had an impact on the strategic objectives of the group itself? Does ISIS, emboldened by its psychological and territorial victories in destabilizing northern Iraq and controlling key infrastructure such as oil fields, now quickly move to take advantage of this perceived initiative, broaden their goals, and consequently pursue a wider regional campaign for militancy?
- What is the relationship between ISIS and al-Qaeda?
- If ISIS is presuming to take open ‘offices’ in Afghanistan, is it with al-Qaeda’s tacit approval? Is there a cooperative relationship between the two groups? Is ISIS moving into Afghanistan without consulting al-Qaeda? If so, what are the potential consequences for the two groups competing for regional dominance in post-ISAF Afghanistan?
- Why is ISIS securing ground in Afghanistan?
- Does ISIS sustain any relationship with Pakistani intelligence or military? Would the goals of the group include conducting attacks against governments such as the one in India? Given the Pakistani military’s tight focus on the insurgency in Afghanistan, it is unlikely that Islamabad would look favorably upon the advent of ISIS operational capacity inside Afghanistan without consultation of the Pakistani military or a proxy group.
- What is the relationship between the Taliban and Haqqani Network insurgent command and ISIS?
- Considering the territorial dominance of both the Taliban and Haqqani Network, were Mullah Omar and/or Siraj Haqqani consulted about ISIS moving into Afghanistan?
- How does the Iranian regime in Tehran react to an internationally-sponsored and supported Sunni extremist group maneuvering to open outposts on its eastern border?
- Iran no doubt views the movement of ISIS into Afghanistan as a threat to the stability of the regime in Tehran Do they anticipate any cooperation between ISIS and anti-Iranian regime groups such as those in Baluchistan (both in Pakistan and Iran)? What would Iran’s response be in confronting ISIS in Afghanistan and Iraq in a post-ISAF environment? How would cooperation between NATO member states and Iran metastasize with the advent of an ISIS presence in Afghanistan?
The threat ISIS has thus far posed is as a destabilizing element in Iraq and Syria. While the group’s strategic planners may have the long-term goal of dominating the global jihadist movement and inspiring further destabilization of Eurasia, the Indian sub-continent, and even Africa, the interests of great powers that it will potentially find itself at odds with make the group’s move into Afghanistan that much more curious. As quietly as Russian and Chinese policymakers have been throughout the land grab ISIS has conducted in the Levant, it is unlikely that both governments would sit idle as ISIS unseated or disturbed the rule of regimes in resource rich areas of Central Asia and Africa. ISIS may be spreading itself a bit too thin and relying on the momentum galvanized from gains in the Levant in spreading its influence over other unstable states. As it does, it will increasingly find competitors in the movement and potential enemies in the capitals of states not keen on seeing ISIS advance at the expense of their national interests. In flying too close to the sun, Icarus found himself a hostage to hubris and sowed the seeds of his own destruction. ISIS may be following suit.
(Main image courtesy of www.saisaonline.org)