Rise of ISArchive
MONDAY’S appalling suicide attack on a Shia mosque in the heart of Kabul highlights the bloody, expanding footprint of the militant Islamic State group in Afghanistan. Despite President Ashraf Ghani’s frequent assertions that IS poses no significant threat to the Afghans, the group is spreading its tentacles from Nangarhar province to the nation’s fortified capital and beyond.
Over 30 civilians, including children, were killed and scores wounded in the bombing of the Baqir ul-Uloom mosque in the Darul Aman area — the third devastating assault on the Shia community since July. The two previous strikes had also been claimed by the militant Sunni group, which is intent on striking fear in people’s hearts through large-scale massacres.
IS-perpetrated terror has sparked grave concerns and outrage in the minority sect, which has good reason to criticise the government and its US allies for being unable to prevent a recurrence of terrorist acts against it. Such incidents have contributed to stoking tribal and factional rivalries in a country once known for sectarian harmony. In July, IS bragged about targeting Hazara protesters in Kabul. At least 80 people were killed in the suicide bombing.
The Shia community, constituting 10-15pc of Afghanistan’s population, has long complained of discrimination, killings and kidnappings. Thousands of Hazara people were killed or brutally tortured during the Afghan Taliban’s rule. Both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Hazaras have been a prime target of the Taliban, Lashkar-i-Jhangvi and IS.
IS operations in Nangarhar, Kabul, Balkh and Zabul provinces have shaken an administration that can hardly cope with the challenges before it, notably the security situation. Every time the president touts his government’s security gains, both the Taliban and IS return with greater vengeance. And that’s why the presidential assertions are no longer taken seriously by cynical civilians, who have borne the brunt of the violence.
A string of high-casualty attacks are illustrative of a new dimension that IS has added to the conflict in Afghanistan, which has witnessed decades of fighting. However, sectarian strife was never as pronounced as it has become in the past two years. Mounting Shia-Sunni tensions are bound to exacerbate Kabul’s security woes.
Additionally, the latest incident will dramatically corrode confidence in the government’s ability to protect minority lives and properties. Belying official claims that IS has been contained in small pockets in the remote eastern mountains, the group’s stepped-up activities demonstrate its fast-growing presence in Afghanistan, a country that has traditionally been hostile to aliens.
The number of IS fighters in Nangarhar alone is said to range between 2,000 and 4,000, most of them reportedly ex-rebels from Pakistan’s Orakzai Agency and some disgruntled Afghan Taliban. Sustained air strikes and ground offensives by American and Afghan forces notwithstanding, the guerrillas stay entrenched in their strongholds in Achin, Kot, Khogyani and Pachiragam districts, as well as other areas near the Pakistan border.
Armed to the teeth and familiar with the region’s geography, they either relocate to another district or cross the Durand Line to escape a big counter-insurgency push on either side. As leaders of the ruling coalition struggle with internecine rifts, military commanders openly acknowledge the government’s current COIN approach is neither top-down nor bottom-up.
This has led to deepening ethnic divisions and a yawning gap between government and people. Worse still, the terrorists have exploited chinks in the Afghan military strategy. Instead of exploring ways to prevent IS extending its reach into urban areas, the rulers continue tilting at windmills.
Going by the Global Terrorism Index, IS is now the deadliest terror outfit in the world. In 2015, it killed more than 6,000 people, posing a threat to many countries. As part of its ambitious agenda, it seeks to establish a ‘caliphate’ by conquering 67 nations, ie over two billion people. The terrorist outfit regards Shias as those who must be exterminated.
After setting up bases in northern Afghanistan, the movement could try to steal into Central Asia. At the moment, however, it has set its sights on Kunduz, Baghlan and Badakhshan — bordering Tajikistan. For the Central Asian mission, which may not be accomplished anytime soon, it is said to have recruited former members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
The US president-elect can learn from Barack Obama’s faulty timelines for ending America’s longest war in the “graveyard of empires”. Being a shrewd business tycoon, Donald Trump must have an idea of how long US taxpayers can pay for Afghanistan’s security expenditures and fund more than 80pc of its budget. Each one of the 10,000 US soldiers still stationed in Afghanistan costs Washington $4 million annually.
The writer is a senior freelance journalist based in Peshawar.
Published in Dawn, November 24th, 2016