The Changing Security Scenario of Afghanistan
Dr Farhan Zahid
Counter-Terrorism and Security Analyst (Pakistan).
Strategic calculus of Afghanistan is fast changing. The war-ravaged, impoverished and delicately fragile nation seems to have pitted against both state and non-state actors attempting to increase their influence. The landlocked country is dependent in terms of trade and heavily reliant on foreign aid because of its dilapidated infrastructure and meager resources. The country has been in the grip of political violence since 1973 and it appears that the security situation despite tremendous efforts by US and allies is not going to improve in near future. Keeping in view of this harsh reality the new challenge for Kabul is its changing security situation. This could be analyzed in terms of reshaping of the violent landscape with the advent of ISIS-Khurasan, apparent exit of Hizb-I-Islami (Hekmatyar faction) from the scene, and changing tactics of Islamic Emirate Afghanistan (i.e. Afghan Taliban).
The changing construct of Afghan Violent Non-State Actors
Currently there is a plethora of violent non-state actors operating in Afghanistan which may be categorized into two major blocs: Afghan Taliban (Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan) and Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) and its growing network of affiliated groups.
Afghan territory is hotly contested as Afghan Taliban groups, ISIS and government forces strive to maintain their presence in at least 211 districts out of 400 districts in 34 provinces.
Afghan Taliban under the leadership of their supreme leader Mullah Haibatullah considers itself the shadow government of Afghanistan. The Islamist violent group has earlier worked in collusion with Al-Qaeda but most of the fighting now being done by Afghan fighters as most of the Al-Qaeda militants have either been killed, captured or shifted to other theatres of Global War on Terrorism. The Al-Qaeda leftovers – i.e. Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Eastern Islamic Movement of Turkistan (ETIM), Islamic Jihad Union, Emirate Kaukav (Chechen Islamists) and Al-Qaeda affiliated Pakistani Islamist jihadist groups (such as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, TTP) – have either joined ISIS-Khurasan chapter based in eastern Afghan provinces (Nangarhar, Paktika, Khost and Paktiya) or in the process of joining because of the ongoing military operation (Zab-e-Azb) against them in Afghanistan-neighboring Pakistani tribal districts.
The military operations (Operation Zarb-e-Azb and Operation Rad-ul-Fasad) on Pakistani sides may not root out TTP and its affiliates, as now Zarb-e-Azb is in its third year and Rad-ul-Fasad has just taken off in 2017, but its intensity would allow TTP militants to leave the country and cross porous Pakistan-Afghanistan border and found new safe havens in eastern provinces of Afghanistan. The eastern provinces are already becoming hubs of ISIS-Khurasan with number of bases and training facilities established in Nangarhar province. The US and Afghan security forces have launched several operations against them in recent past. Therefore it could safely be assumed that the next destination of Pakistani Islamist terrorist groups would likely to be eastern Afghanistan. This would affect the whole security calculus of Afghanistan if not taken seriously. The plethora of Islamist terrorist groups operating in Pakistan is far more than Afghanistan and the gradual shift of such number would change the Jihadi militant landscape of Afghanistan.
ISIS in Nangarhar and Surroundings
The emergence of Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS)’s Khurasan chapter in eastern Afghan provinces appears to the game changer as a number of Pakistani Islamist terrorist groups have already pledged allegiance to Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Afghan Islamist groups are contemplating to join. Hitherto the ISIS-Khurasan has not been able to gain much ground in Pakistan because only a few terrorist groups joined it (Jundullah, Tehreek-e-Khilafat Pakistan and some factions of TTP) but if bulk of on-the-run TTP joins it in Afghanistan then there would be serious repercussions for Afghanistan as far as security is concerned in near future and for Pakistan the countdown for replication of same event may begin shortly as the same groups would definitely like to infiltrate back into Pakistan. The Islamist militants associated with ISIS-Khurasan are from both urban and rural backgrounds, it’s a unique combination and many of the Islamist militants arrested in Pakistan (350 so far) are from urban centers and cities like Karachi, Lahore, Sialkot and Islamabad. The ISIS-Khurasan chapter is trying hard to have a charismatic jihadi veteran as its Emir and secondly to recruit educated and high-tech ISIS aspirants. The tech-savvy nature of ISIS is one big advantage the Islamist militant group would like to capitalize on.
An apparent fall of Mosul in next few months and subsequent fall of Raqqa is now becoming a reality and central leadership of ISIS is well aware of this upcoming challenge. The perceptible ISIS plan in such scenario would be to shift their remaining high profile fighters to some other place where safe havens could be found. Afghanistan may become their likely destination amid a failing security environment. Afghan Taliban despite their abhorrence for the ISIS may not be able to stop them from seeking sanctuaries in lawless territories of Afghanistan.
Taliban at offensive in Kundoz and Sangin
Despite frustrations in their ranks after the killings of two supreme leaders (Emir ul Momineen) in 2015 and 2016, the Afghan Taliban fights on. Their recent overtures resulted in the fall of Kundoz in 2015 which was soon retaken by Afghan and US forces after a house to house battle; and most recently the fall of Sangin in Helmand province in March 2017. The footprints of Afghan Taliban are once again growing in Helmand, Farah, and adjoining provinces, with Helmand being the most effected. Till last reports Sanjin has not been retaken by Afghan Security Forces and it has become the fifth district to fall to Afghan Taliban after (Khan Nishen, Musa Qila, Kajaki, and Now Zad).
On the other hand, the successful peace talks with Gulbaden Hekmatyar, the Emir of Hizb-e-Islami militia, and surfacing of veteran Islamist would eventually allow Hekmatyar’s exit from the militant landscape after 38 years of warfare against Afghan government, Soviet forces, civil war, Taliban and US forces. Hekmatyar has a despicably impeccable notoriety for perpetrating acts of terrorism in Afghanistan and killing and maiming thousands of Afghan, the current Afghan government is left with no option but to embrace him. This would definitely provide some relief to Afghan security forces in handling security situation in northern Afghan provinces.
Afghan security situation has remained in a flux even after substantial state building efforts put in by the US and allies. On the other hand the situation though not at all satisfactory but comparatively better in shunning the very idea that Afghan government would collapse after the withdrawal of US forces in 2014. The current security scenario despite its serious weaknesses indicates that the Afghan government structures as erected by the US in its bid to build state institutions are stable enough to withhold the multi-pronged violence perpetrated by Islamist violent non state actors. The Afghans can handle their own militant Islamists but the real problem may come from the neighborhood. The emerging security situation in neighboring Pakistan may allow an influx of Islamist militants into Afghanistan. This is in fact already happening. The ongoing military operations in tribal and settled areas of Pakistan have only pushed Pakistani Islamists towards Afghanistan and primary Islamist insurgent group TTP has established its bases in Afghan territories bordering Pakistan. The recent security developments may need to be apprised and a renewed and reinvigorated AFPak policy would be the need of the hour.