Mixed reviews have emerged on the threat posed by IS to South Asia. One of the arguments postulates that the group will not be able to make significant inroads because the socio-political and religious terrain of the Middle East and South Asia are fundamentally different. Others have pointed out to the geographic reasons for why IS may not be able to fully penetrate South Asia; the two regions are obviously separated by Iran, a Shia power. The most dangerous development can be the coming together of AQ and IS in the future.
In its past analysis, PoliTact has projected that the affairs of Middle East, especially related to extremism and Iran’s nuclear program, were likely to dominate the affairs of South Asia at some point. Associated with this assessment was an alarm that if the Afghan reconciliation process lingers on for too long, as it has, the dynamics of the Arab politics may start to complicate the Afghan affairs, including Pakistan and India, in a manner they have not in the past. Now we feel it is beginning to happen in the form of Islamic State (IS).
Core Al Qaeda (AQ) has long had a presence in the region and has morphed in to a phenomenon known as AQ and Associates. The introduction of IS in to the extremist mix has considerably raised the stakes for the region. In a series of articles, PoliTact is examining the various facets of the threat posed by IS to the South Asia region, which will ultimately project towards Central Asia. Speaking at a conference held at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC on March 17, Kazakhstan’s Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs, Yerzhan Ashikbayev, noted that his country is deeply worried about the reports of IS presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan and is closely monitoring the situation.
Different Understandings Of The IS Threat
In a recent development six leading TTP figures – Shahidullah Shahid, Hafiz Saeed Khan, Hafiz Daulat Khan, Maulana Gul Zaman, Mufti Hassan and Khalid Mansoor – swore allegiance to the IS. As widely reported, the IS spokesman Muhammad al-Adnani officially recognized the wilayah of Khorasan on January 26. He also designated Hafiz Saeed Khan, a former commander of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in Orakzai tribal agency, as regional commander. On the other hand, Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim, a former Afghan Taliban commander, was appointed as the deputy regional chief.
PoliTact’s South Asia Fellow Shreyas Deshmukh noted in his analysis of these reports:
“Against the backdrop of ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) withdrawal from Afghanistan, ongoing military operations against TTP in Pakistan and the crucial Afghan peace talks, such unprecedented changes at the high level of Taliban leadership along with the spread of the IS ideology and influence will only strengthen the morale of terrorists in the South Asian region.”
On the other hand, PoliTact’s director for strategic initiatives Dr Claude Rakists commented: “what this means in practical, military terms is difficult to assess today. However, what it does imply is that AQ’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.”
Commenting on the motivation behind these Taliban desertions, PoliTact’s South and Central Asia Fellow Zia-ur-Rehman noted:
“An official in Afghan government believe that the elements who are part of the IS, especially Khadim, who swore his allegiance to al-Baghdadi and became IS’s local leader, have lost their connections with Quetta Shura. According to the official, their key motivation is clear; IS is a strong brand and they can regain some of their prestige and show their muscle to the leadership of Afghan Taliban.”
What The Region Thinks
Despite these developments, confusion regarding IS and its regional ambitions persists in Pakistan. Speaking to the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee in February, Foreign Secretary, Azaz Ahmed Chaudhry, admitted that IS poses a serious concern and that 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. 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.
Chaudhry Nisar’s cautious approach is similar to the Indian posture towards IS. India has maintained a low profile on the issue and does not want to unnecessarily complicate its relations with the GCC states, on which it depends heavily for energy needs, importing roughly 59 percent of its oil. According to a World Bank report, in 2013 India received about $73 billion in remittances from the Middle East, where nearly seven million Indians reside as guest workers.
During President Obama’s visit to India in January, US Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes commented, “When you look at our broader counter-terrorism cooperation and how we’re tracking the flow of fighters and terrorist financing there, I do think we want to find space for cooperation,” he told journalists. However, when it comes the risks posed by extremists from the direction of Afghanistan and Pakistan, US-India security cooperation goes beyond the realm of tracking finances.
On the other hand, the Afghan governments understanding of the IS threat is different than Pakistan and India. 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 the region lightly especially after how events have unfolded in Iraq. A drone strike early in February took out its main recruiter and recently appointed deputy regional commander, Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim. Speaking at the Woodrow Wilson Center on March 17, Director at the office of OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) Secretary General, Ambassador Marcel Pesko, noted that IS can spoil the Afghan reconciliation process. Moreover, he stated that as the Afghan peace talks pick speed, the IS phenomenon in the region may get worse.
The IS threat may be behind the review of the number of forces that would remain in Afghanistan and the withdrawal timeline, being undertaken by the new US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. However, the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan is one of the key demands of the Afghan Taliban before it would reconcile. Dr Shahrbanou Tadjbaksh noted at the Woodrow Wilson Center on March 17 that IS can spoil President Ashraf Ghani’s vision for regional connectivity. Furthermore, she pointed out that the interests of regional states are a bigger threat to Afghanistan than those posed by the non-state actors.
The Associates Of IS, AQ And The Future
The present enhanced security cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan, including Pakistan’s on-going military operations in FATA, are likely 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 the associates of AQ and IS.
As reflected above, 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. To understand how this trend can unfold, the past provides one sample. In a dangerous development in December 2011, AQ, Afghan Taliban, and TTP representatives came together in the form of a consultative body called Shura-e-Murakeba.
Senior Al Qaeda leader Abu Yahya al-Libi as well as Siraj-ud-din Haqqani of Haqqani network, attended the meetings to form this Shura. Reportedly, other leaders attending included Hakimullah Mehsud and his deputy Waliur Rehman of TTP. Spokesperson for TTP, Ehsanullah Ehsan had stated that Maulvi Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahdur, which Pakistan considered as Good Taliban, including Zabiullah Mujahid and Maulvi Sangeen, were also present. Some accounts suggest that Mullah Omar had sent Siraj Haqqani and Mullah Mansour to broker the agreement.
The congregations had produced the following outcomes: sort out differences between the groups; avoiding the unnecessary killings and kidnappings for ransom; ending of attacks on Pakistan’s military and refocusing of efforts towards US led coalition in Afghanistan. The timing of the birth of the Shura is noteworthy, the body came in to being after the November, 2011 NATO Mohmand attack. The incident resulted in the death of 26 Pakistani soldiers.
In a fashion similar to the meetings under Shura-e-Murakebha, Pakistan’s Punjab based jihadist also came together at the time. Banned religious group Jamaatud Dawa (JD) protested against the granting of most favored nation (MFN) to India, and declared it was ready for jihad against NATO. The gathering of 44 right wing entities was held under the banner of the Difaa-i-Pakistan Council (Pakistan Defense Council).
These meetings were interpreted by some as Pakistan’s attempt to pull the Islamists together in the aftermath of the NATO Mohmand attack. The coming together of extremist leaders in the form of Shura-e-Murakeba was also working against the strategy of dividing the AQ and Associates. Irrespective of this, as the US-Pakistan relations improved, many of the participants of the FATA conferences have since been eliminated. However, the fear has persisted that Pakistan and its military maintains some level of influence on various militant and extremist groups, a case consistently reinforced by India. In the aftermath of the Army Public School (APS) attack in Peshawar, and via Operation Zarb-e-Azb, Pakistan now suggests it has dropped the classification of Good and Bad Taliban.
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 is a potent reason for Pakistan and India to resume results oriented dialog.