By Shreyas Deshmukh
In August 2014 Ahrur-ul-Hind, a faction Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), became the first terrorist organization to join hands with the Islamic State (IS) in South Asia. This affiliation initiated a debate amongst concerned policy makers and analysts alike on what this alliance represented. The threat is not only if militants from the region are joining IS in the Middle East, as they are from other parts of the world, but also how IS will influence the politics of South Asia.
The past six months have been difficult for IS; it has failed so far to replicate its successes in Iraq and Syria. There are a number of reasons for this. The socio-political environment and the ideological characteristics of the extremist organizations that flourish in the South Asia region are different from that of the Middle East. However, Al Qaeda (AQ) has in the past been able to operate and expand successfully to many other theaters, and thus the differences alone do not minimize the future risks posed by IS to the region.
Then there is the alarm of if IS and affiliates will fight against AQ and associates in South Asia, as it has in the Middle East. Equally critical is to examine the chances of IS and AQ uniting at some point. Both these possibilities pose dangerous ramifications for the region.
How the political leadership of the region interprets the arrival of IS also provides clues on their likely response. From what can be gathered at this point, the assessment of the leadership of Afghanistan and Pakistan diverges, while India has been particularly cautious. In this connection, two significant variations are emerging: should the IS threat be considered in the context of South Asia alone, or as a broader trend impacting other adjacent regions as well.
Both Afghanistan and India see the IS threat as a broader trend, while Pakistan wants to confine it with in the local and regional underpinnings. The country is hesitant to take on another campaign against extremists when it is hardly done with the groups already nurturing in the region and as Saudi Arabia seeks its assistance.
In particular, President Ashraf Ghani appears most concerned with the IS (also known as Daesh, ISIS, and ISIL) making inroads in the region. In his recent speeches, including the ones he gave during the crucial visit to the US, he highlighted and articulated the fresh dynamics better than any other regional leader has been able to do.
More importantly, he is connecting the danger IS poses to Afghanistan in terms of what is occurring in the Middle East. In his address at a conference in Munich in February, he noted, “Daesh is fast moving to stage four of its classic pattern, namely organizing, orienting, deciding and acting. The threat of this ecology is global but Afghanistan is the meeting ground of this global ecology.”
He further added: “… And it is very important not to isolate the events from Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya from what is unfolding in Afghanistan and South Asia. Because the threats from the network perspective are becoming stronger, the state response is, unfortunately, weaker.”
Afghan Peace Talks
As IS enters the South Asian theater, one of the obvious concerns is how the Afghan peace efforts will be impacted. At an event held at the Heritage Foundation on March 26th, PoliTact’s Chief Analyst Arif Ansar asked the CEO of Afghanistan Dr. Abdullah Abdullah about his views on this subject. He commented, “Daesh as a whole is not an imminent threat in Afghanistan at this stage but it is something that nobody can ignore in the region and beyond.”
He elaborated that IS is after territory and that does not resonance well with the governments of the region. And because of this reason, he opined, there may be scope for cooperation on this amongst the respective states. As IS makes an entry in South Asia, Abdullah Abdulah stated that IS is likely to come in to conflict with local extremist and jihadi groups operating under the umbrella of AQ.
Earlier, in an interactive session held in New Delhi in March, Abdullah Abdullah had mentioned that the defection of some fighters from Taliban ranks and their induction into IS as a local and internal problem of Taliban. Answering to a question during the discussion, he had added even if (Afghan) Taliban agree to stop the violence, there is no profound hope that other groups will end terrorist activities.
On the other hand, a comment made by Ashraf Ghani during his speech at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) on March 25 that has not garnered much attention, squarely puts the onus on Pakistan on how the Afghan peace talk progresses. He stated:
“The problem, fundamentally, is not about peace with the Taliban [but] about peace between Pakistan and Afghanistan,” said Ghani, adding that Pakistani officials have “accepted this definition of the problem. That’s the breakthrough.”
The comment was presented by Ashish Kumar Sen of the Atlantic Council, in the following context: ““Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is “cautiously optimistic” about the prospects of peace with the Taliban, in part because Pakistan—where a mélange of terrorist groups have for years found safe haven and support—now acknowledges that improving ties with neighboring Afghanistan is key to ending regional violence.”” Or in other words, Pakistan would prevent its territory to be used as safe havens against Afghanistan, and it would reciprocate respectively by cracking don on TTP.
Against the backdrop of ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) withdrawal from Afghanistan, ongoing military operations in Pakistan, and the attempts to jump start the Afghan peace talks, the spread of IS ideology and influence is likely to strengthen the morale of extremists in South Asia. A report published by SIGAR (Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction) came up with an unnerving revelation on the number of soldiers that have deserted ANA (Afghan National Army) since last year. The figure currently stands at around 8 percent.
A dire economic situation of the Afghan state further increases the susceptibility of the country to tilt towards ultra radicalism and move towards IS. Reportedly, there is a rift amongst Afghan Taliban leaders on how to pursue the peace talks; political leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansour favors negotiations while battlefield commander Qayum Zakir is opposing talks. These divisions can potentially be exploited by IS to damage the nascent peace talks.
In view of this reality, during the visit of Afghan leadership to the US, President Obama announced the revised withdrawal plan. The discussion in Washington continues if a permanent residual American presence in Afghanistan is needed. Speaking at the Middle East Institute on April 2, Ambassador Khalilzad noted that US has broader regional interests for which permanent presence is need in the country, and also to demonstrate that US has a long term commitment.
As the efforts towards Afghan peace talks continue, a dramatic shift in the American position has also come to the fore. US now wants Afghans to lead the peace talks and does not see itself in the position to be directly involved.
Pakistan, India Dynamics
Obviously, in addition to Afghan reconciliation, a key question is also: how will the existing extremist groups in the region respond to the new player in town. And, what does that mean for India and Pakistan. This is perhaps why India has been extremely cautious on how to define the IS threat, and according to some officials, it is just beginning to formulate a counter strategy. The risk is at two levels: internal and external.
The small number of Indian Muslims among the ranks of IS militants in the Middle East has not raised immediate alarm. However, the larger Muslim population in India remains susceptible to the slick IS propaganda machinery, which could lead to its radicalization and increase home grown threats.
With IS gaining traction in South Asia, India’s concerns are further heightened over the dangers of global Jihad. Indian Mujahedeen (IM) is the most prominent Islamic militant group, which shares the aspirations of establishing an Islamic Caliphate. The group has claimed responsibility for almost all major terror related events across India since 2008 Mumbai attacks, and now much of its leadership is believed to be based in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. An offshoot of IM is a faction called Ansar-ut Tawhid fi Bilad al-Hind which is headed by an Indian Muslim. The group has pledged allegiance to IS and is utilizing its cyber skills for propaganda and recruitment and thus the risk of radicalization and homegrown terrorism looms large for India.
On the other hand, Core AQ has long had a presence in the region and has over the years morphed in to a phenomenon known as AQ and Associates. The introduction of IS in the extremist mix has considerably raised the stakes for the region. In the future, IS could become the centripetal force for disgruntled extremists of all sorts, leading to friction and infighting between various configurations of extremists, with the states caught in the middle, as is the case in the Middle East.
This could further complicate Afghan reconciliation and normalization of Pakistan-India ties. On a more ominous note, IS could potentially compete against Pakistan’s alleged influence over some groups. While the consistent pressure on Core AQ may have indeed weakened it, the emergence of IS has created an opportunity and a focal point for the Associates of AQ to gravitate towards. This scenario could start to play out when and if Pakistan starts to act against India oriented jihadists. Some Pakistani officials have hinted that the nations is planning to do just that in a ‘sequential’ manner, that is after dealing with extremists in the FATA region.
As the danger of IS unfolds, mixed messages have emanated from officials in Pakistan is how it perceives the fresh threat.
Speaking at the United States Institute for Peace (USIP) on February 18, Pakistan’s Interior Minister Chuadhry Nisar Ali Khan vehemently denied that IS had any presence in Pakistan, “IS is totally a Middle Eastern phenomenon and has no presence in Pakistan and Afghanistan.” He added that the extremist space in the region is already full and has no room to accommodate IS. Furthermore, he emphasized to use the regional context to understand the extremist landscape and avoid generalization. What he probably meant was that Pakistan does not want to get entangled in another round of ‘do more’ demands, or to get sucked in to the to the Arab-Iranian politics, which would be inevitable if the situation of Middle East and Yemen continues to deteriorate.
Speaking to journalists in Peshawar on March 15, Corps Commander Peshawar, Lieutenant General Hidayat-ur-Rehman stated: “For us it’s just a change in name, and there is no need for Pakistanis to worry. There are several defections in the Taliban now, which are becoming part of Daesh. But we are all aware of the situation and are able to tackle them effectively.”
While India has more control on its internal environment to contain the spread of deadly ideologies and to make it less conducive, it has less influence on the broader trends. On the contrary Pakistan is beginning to have lesser control over its domestic situation while Afghanistan is just getting started to tackle its internal security situation. The introduction of IS to the extremist mix has complicated the reality even more.
In the aftermath of 2008 Mumbai attacks, India considerably increased its intelligence sharing with Western nations, who share the threat from Transnational Islamist terrorist groups that reside in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. This has put US in a delicate position. It has sought better cooperation from Pakistan to act against all colors of extremists, oriented towards Afghanistan and India, and not just Pakistan. At the same time, the 2011 Raymond Davis incident indicated that US was also utilizing other methods to mitigate the risks. US and India have also increased military exercises geared towards risks originating from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
These pressures, in addition to Pakistan itself becoming the target of extremist groups, has forced the country to gradually increase its cooperation with the US and NATO. In addition, Pakistan’s other staunch allies, Saudi Arabia and China, have also become greatly worried from the non-state actors that have taken refuge in the region. In an unprecedented move in 2012, the Saudis arrested and handed over one of the main suspect of 2008 Mumbai attacks, Sayed Zabiuddin Ansari, to India.
These changes in the geopolitical environment ultimately pushed Pakistan to conduct the much-desired North Waziristan operation, drop the good and bad Taliban classification, and to eagerly facilitate the Afghan peace process. The window of opportunity is shrinking fast and these developments, including the arrival of IS, will likely motivate Afghan Taliban to hasten the pace of peace talks before others steal or dilute their agenda.
However, the above trajectory of events has to be examined in parallel to the burgeoning phenomenon of non-state actors. An examination of the events of Middle East suggests three different forms of Non-Sate Actors in action there: those under some sorts of state influence, those without any state influence, and the ones acting under nationalistic aspirations. While Hezbollah is a proxy of Iran, IS and AQ are apparently operating independently of state influence. And then there are Kurd forces and Moderated Free Syrian Army (FSA) supported by the West.
The situation of Middle East and the ongoing talks with Iran regarding its nuclear program despite supporting Hezbollah, provide the following lessons: it is better to have non-sate actors that are under some sorts of state influence than those that are not, and do not listen to anyone.
The blurring of lines between this distinction, which the emergence of IS may produce in South Asia, is perhaps the most perilous scenario and could spark a much dreaded conflict. This scenario will increase headaches for Pakistan, and should compel India and Afghanistan to speed up their diplomatic efforts to resolve outstanding conflicts.
Two additional dynamic variables to monitor are: if Pakistan gets militarily involved in Yemen, how are the non-state actors likely to respond in the region? And to study how will the final nuclear deal with Iran change the nature of the campaign against extremists. PoliTact will be looking at these angles in its future articles.