IS, AQ Rivalry In South, Central Asia And Afghan Reconciliation

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Context

23-02-2015_KhorasanMap1Recent media reports indicate the Afghan reconciliation process is once again picking pace. While the Afghan officials have confirmed the development, Afghan Taliban are tight lipped about it. These reports also suggest that Pakistan is playing a critical facilitating role as the trajectory of Pakistan-Afghanistan relations continue to improve remarkably. The Chinese role appears to be decisive in moving the present round of negotiations forward while the US may have taken a back seat for the time being.

After the formation of the unity government in Afghanistan, the initiation of the reconciliation process was the next logical step. However, one of the key factors providing stimulus to the present round of negotiation appears to be the introduction of the IS (Islamic State) in to the mix of extremist groups in the region. The IS spokesman Muhammad al-Adnani officially recognized the wilayah of Khorasan on January 26. Among other areas, Khorasan region encompasses Afghanistan and almost all of Pakistan.

In a recent development that is likely to further weaken Maulana Fazlullah’s precarious hold on what is left of the TTP, six leading TTP figures – Shahidullah Shahid, Hafiz Saeed Khan, Hafiz Daulat Khan, Maulana Gul Zaman, Mufti Hassan and Khalid Mansoor – have sworn allegiance to the IS. What this means in practical, military terms is difficult to assess today. However, what it does mean is that Al-Qaeda’s pull in Pakistan is weakening and that its level of influence has diminished under the leadership of Ayman Al Zawahri.

Zwahiri’s public stunt of creating a South Asia branch of Al-Qaeda (AQIS) did little to hide this. On the contrary, it confirmed its desperate search for relevance in the wake of IS’s meteoric rise in the world of terrorism. The decision by the leader of the Pakistan-based Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan to also swear allegiance to IS in October 2014 was further confirmation of Al-Qaeda’s fast diminishing weight in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Despite this, confusion regarding IS persists in Pakistan. Speaking to the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee today,Foreign Secretary, Azaz Ahmed Chaudhry, admitted that IS poses a serious concern and the government is taking all necessary steps to counter the risk. On the other hand, Pakistan’s Interior Minister dismissed the IS threat as media hype in Washington while attending the Summit on Countering Violent Extremism.

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. Moreover, he added that the extremist space in the region is already full and has no room to accommodate IS. Considering the state of affairs of the region, that appears to be a big leap of faith. Furthermore, he emphasized to use regional context to understand the extremist landscape and not to generalize.

This is stark contrast to what President Ashraf Ghani told the Munich Security Conference on February 8: “… 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.”

US and NATO are also not taking the IS threat to this region lightly. A drone strike early in February took out its main recruiter in Afghanistan, a former Afghan Taliban commander Mullah Abdul Rauf, also known as Khadim. The IS threat may be behind the review of the status of forces in Afghanistan and withdrawal timeline, being undertaken by the new Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter. However, the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan is one of the key demands of Afghan Taliban before it would reconcile.

The present cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan, including Pakistan’s on-going military operations in FATA, are being stimulated by an emerging trend that has already settled in the Middle East, and may be now moving towards the South and Central Asia. This pattern is the infighting between AQ and Associates and IS and Associates. The full shape of what constitutes the Associates of IS in South and Central Asia is still in the formative stages. Nonetheless, as it evolves it can disrupt the nascent Afghan reconciliation process and with implications for India. This trend represents one of the main characteristics of the Stage III of the campaign against extremists, which PoliTact is presently analyzing and will be reporting further on in the coming articles.

The other factor to look out for is the West’s nuclear deal with Iran. If it materializes by the June deadline this year, it could prove to be a game changer. Iran could emerge as the greatest partner in the war against Sunni Extremists. And this fact is not lost on Sunni stakeholders of this campaign. Iran can also assist in no small way to settle the crisis in Syria and help facilitate the Middle East Peace Process.

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