Daesh and Afghan peace process
Days after the United States and Taliban signed a peace agreement, Kabul was shaken by a series of spectacular terrorist attacks that were claimed by Daesh. Last week, its gunmen opened fire on a memorial ceremony attended by several prominent political figures, killing and wounding dozens of people. Soon after that, the group fired rockets at the oath-taking ceremony of President Ashraf Ghani. The bloody incidents heightened fears that the militant group was trying to disrupt the nascent peace process in the war-torn country.
Following the historic agreement signed with the Taliban earlier this month, the US has already started withdrawing some of its troops, raising hopes that the 18-year-long war is finally coming to an end. The spike in the terrorist attacks, however, indicates it will still take time before peace returns to the country since groups like Daesh are opposing any negotiated political settlement in Afghanistan.
The incidents have demonstrated the group’s capacity to launch high-profile attacks despite its recent military setbacks at the hands of American forces and the Taliban. The radical faction that originated in the Middle East managed to spread its tentacles in different parts of Afghanistan during the last few years and has targeted civilian populations and minority religious sects with impunity. The latest attack in Kabul targeted the Hazara community.
Daesh may attract more radical Taliban elements to its ranks if intra-Afghan talks fail to reach a sustainable and inclusive political arrangement in Afghanistan
The rise of Daesh represents a new, violent and dangerous twist in the history of Afghan insurgency. Over the past few years, this terrorist group, opposed to both the Taliban and the Afghan government, claimed responsibility for a series of high-profile suicide attacks in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, and other parts of the country.
The first signs of Daesh getting organized in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region emerged as early as 2014 when leaflets urging fighters belonging to the Taliban and other Afghan insurgent outfits to join the militant faction appeared in various districts.
In January 2015, the group released a video to proclaim itself the administrator of an official wilayat (or province) that stretched across Afghanistan and Pakistan. The creation of the Shura for Khorasan (the historic name of the region, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Central Asia) was endorsed by the Daesh supreme command. The declaration also galvanized the group’s activists and helped mobilize support among other militant organizations operating on both sides of the Pak-Afghan border.
Initially, Daesh focused on Afghanistan’s eastern provinces of Kunar and Nangarhar, where many Pakistani Taliban commanders fleeing the military operation in the tribal areas had settled. Soon after the formation of its Khorasan chapter, Daesh became active in eleven provinces of Afghanistan. The group’s early recruits came from the ranks of splinter factions of the Pakistani Taliban who had been driven into Afghanistan after large-scale operations in the tribal region of the country.
The militant group had some appeal for young fighters who were impatient with the pace of Afghan insurgency. Money also helped Daesh recruit young militants. Some high-profile defections of Afghan Taliban commanders helped the group create a formal base in the country.
In many cases, defections from the Taliban to Daesh were motivated by the latter’s huge financial resources rather than its radical and rigid worldview and ideology. Fighters were supplied with laptops, pickup trucks, and financial support was extended to their families. There were also reports of foreign fighters, many with ties to local leaders, entering Afghanistan in large numbers.
Foreign fighters aligned with Daesh adopted brutal tactics, emulating the group’s practices in Iraq and Syria. They extended their attacks on the Shia community in Afghanistan. This resulted in an unprecedented rise in suicide attacks on Shia places of worship, with huge civilian casualties. Such attacks had rarely been seen in Afghanistan before and bore the trademark of Daesh operations elsewhere.
Daesh fighters were reported to be better equipped and better funded than the Taliban. Despite the fact that the US used drones to kill the militant faction's senior commanders and even dropped the world’s largest non-nuclear bomb on its stronghold, Daesh retained significant presence in Afghanistan.
Over the last few years, the Taliban routed Daesh activists in eastern Afghanistan, but the latest attacks in Kabul show that the group can create serious problem for everyone in the country.
A more serious concern is that the group may attract more radical Taliban elements to its ranks if intra-Afghan talks fail to reach a sustainable and inclusive political arrangement in Afghanistan.
- Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholar, USA, and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in Washington DC. He is author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with militant Islam (Columbia university press) and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan (Simon and Schuster, NY). Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ.