by Sascha Bruchmann. Sascha Bruchmann studied International Law and International Politics in Germany and the US. He worked as an analyst, covering the MENA region.
On May 12, 2020, a group of gunmen stormed a hospital and maternity ward in Western Kabul, an area known to be religiously Shia and ethnically Hazara. The attackers killed as many as they could before being pinned down by the security forces. In the end, 24 people were killed, including two newborns and their mothers. The Hazara have been attacked again and again in this area over the past years. They have suffered and are angry. ISIS-K claimed responsibility for two other attacks the same day, but not specifically the hospital attack. However, the US government believes ISIS-K is responsible, and some high-ranking Afghan politicians even think that there is no meaningful distinction between ISIS-K and the Taliban. The Taliban have strictly denied any involvement. Still, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has given orders to the Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces to attack the Taliban, reversing the defensive posture established since the declaration of a period of declining violence following the US-Taliban peace deal.
Why does an ISIS-K attack lead to the resumption of war between the Afghan government and the Taliban? The logical link seems tenuous at best, and yet the series of events are connected – by politics. Seen through the lenses of peace negotiations and internal balance of power calculations, the Afghan Government response to such a barbaric attack and its deranged sense of conflict logic is understandable. Here is an attempt to share the sense I make of a senseless crime.
Who are ISIS-K?
Assuming that ISIS-K exists inside Afghanistan, as Antonio Giustozzi has meticulously researched in his book “The Islamic State in Khorasan“, it all started with a detachment of Haqqani fighters sent from Pakistan to support fellow Jihadists in Syria in 2012. They returned in 2013 with a divergence of views from their old leadership.
In parallel, elements of a Pakistani Pashtun sub-tribe, the Orakzai, were pushed across the Pakistan-Afghan border during the Pakistani military operation Zarb-e Azb II in 2014. Some of these Orakzai were members of the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Pakistani Taliban fighting an insurgency against the Pakistani government. Initially welcomed by the Pashtun Afghans, newly settled TTP fighters came to clash with locals in Southern Nangarhar. In the absence of either government or Taliban power projection and a deteriorating, almost anarchic security situation, the newly minted Jihadi Haqqanis who had returned from Syria and the TTP elements found common cause and ISIS-K in Eastern Afghanistan was born. The ongoing forced migration of the Orakzai and a plethora of other local and foreign militias already present has made it fertile ground for ISIS-K to take root.
Now ISIS-K is a melting pot of different Afghan, Pakistani, and international Sunni radicals. It includes former Taliban from the Afghan and Pakistani franchises, with little in common. United only by religious zeal, it repeats the playbook that worked in the Middle East: attack Shia; cause their (over)reaction; within a climate of sectarian tension, pretend to be the savior of the threatened Sunni. ISIS-K wants the Hazara and other Shias to suffer and subsequently arm themselves. Once they do, ISIS-K will tell the Sunnis in Afghanistan that only ISIS-K is able to save them. That is the trap.
ISIS-K has attacked the ethnically Hazara population in Western Kabul with increasing regularity since 2014. Gruesome bombings on soft civilian targets have included: a protest march of the “Enlightenment Movement” bombed in July 2016, a mosque attacked in June 2017, a wedding bombed in August 2019, and a memorial ceremony attacked in March 2020. ISIS-K claimed responsibility for most of these attacks.
What do they want?
ISIS-K wants to establish a caliphate. To do so, it needs to replace the Taliban. ISIS-K’ strategy is to grow through a sectarian war. Pir-Mohammed Molla-Zehi, an Iranian analyst, warned his Iranian countrymen in a 2017 interview not to send Afghan Hazara – known as the Fatemiyoun – used by Iran in the fight against ISIS in the Middle East back to Afghanistan: “The Fatemiyoun and other Divisions supported by Iran, are still not capable of mobilizing the Sunnis… With its past record, should the Fatemiyoun Division return to Afghanistan and not recruit Sunnis, it will in reality play the game of the Islamic State.” ISIS-K commander Abu Omar Khorasani justified bombing the rally on the “Enlightenment Movement” as early as July 2016 in sectarian terms.
Meanwhile, reports about the Fatemiyoun claim they have more than 10,000 fighters, even 20,000 fighters and that 50,000 Afghan refugees were recruited between 2013 and 2017. Hundreds have died. Moreover, the incentives were money and often a residence permit in Iran. Fighters were recruited from migrants inside Iran and have even built permanent bases in Syria.
Are they back in Afghanistan? The actual number inside Afghanistan is probably closer to 2,000. Rahmatullah Nabil, former Chief of Afghanistan’s intelligence agency NDS estimates 2,500-3,000 and that upon return to Afghanistan, the fighters scatter to their homes. It is reasonable to assume that the Fatemiyoun strength, organizational capacity, and will to fight are often grossly overestimated for domestic political purposes inside Afghanistan. One of the groups merged into the Fatemiyoun, Sepah-e Muhammad, were veteran Afghan anti-Taliban fighters. Iranian influence in Afghanistan today is much more diversified and less sectarian.
Nonetheless, the ISIS-K leadership believes the Sunni-Shia divide needs to come to a final battle in Khorasan. They are ready to attack. ISIS-K has limited appeal among Afghans and mostly exists in a vacuum of order and where the wars of the past decades have deposited Wahhabi and Salafi radicalism. This includes parts of Southern Nangarhar, Kunar, Warduj and Kajaki. ISIS-K has been actively targeted by US forces, Afghan forces, and especially the Taliban in 2019 and was diminished. While the Afghan government declared its victory, the recent attacks show, this pronouncement was premature.
A convenient scapegoat?
If ISIS-K wants to transplant a sectarian conflict from the Middle East to Afghanistan – with limited appeal – why does the Afghan government use an attack for the purpose to declare an offensive against the Taliban in the midst of a US-Taliban peace process?
The Afghan government felt mostly excluded from US-Taliban talks, which culminated in the 29 February US-Taliban agreement. The Afghan government resisted much of the deal’s content, felt it was forced upon them, and believed it would weaken the Afghan Republic and constitution. Ghani and the young, reformist class around him want peace, but they want it on their terms – which means maintaining the status quo as much as possible. Along with feeling weakened vis-a-vie negotiations with the Taliban thanks to the US deal, the Afghan government fears dilution of its influence in the domestic fight against the older political classes: the former Northern Alliance and the supporters of former President Hamid Karzai. A fear played out in negotiations that culminated in the uneasy 17 May political settlement reached between Ghani and former Chief Executive Abdullah that extra-constitutionally seeks to increase the power of traditional structures, strong tribes, and power brokers – those often branded warlords and jihadis, mafias, backward minded or Taliban sympathizers – at the expense of those young, urban, nationalist Afghans aligned with Ghani. Simply, the government does not want the current US-driven vision of “peace”.
Cue, ISIS-K as a spoiler to the US imposed “peace”. ISIS-K, which has a history and ideology similar to some Taliban factions, alleged support from Pakistan and even some former Taliban in its ranks. The new 1st Vice President, Amrullah Saleh, was firm in its indictment and made the connection between ISIS-K and the Taliban shortly after the attack. In a similar vein, Ghani mentioned the “symbiotic and organic relations between the Taliban and Daesh” in his inauguration speech on March 10, 2020.
For Saleh, the Taliban and ISIS-K exist as a continuum of pawns of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence, born of the idea of strategic depth as envisioned by former Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq. Thus, to Saleh and others, the Islamists are all one. This is a popular opinion among the urban, nationalist youth and hardly a new one among international analysts, and has recently even resonated inside Pakistan. Some ISIS-K are former Taliban; they are using similar tactics, conduct similar attacks, and are recruiting in the same areas, and ISIS-K sees the Afghan government also as an enemy.
So, Saleh is right? It is more complex than that. The Taliban fight ISIS-K. They have fought massive battles in Nangarhar, Jowzjan, Kunar and other areas last year. ISIS-K wants to usurp the Islamist throne in Afghanistan and make it a hotbed for transnational Jihadism, whereas the Taliban want to rule in Afghanistan. They compete for funds, recruits, territory. ISIS-K wants to replace the Taliban. Because they are so similar in some ways, they cannot coexist and are in mortal combat. The Taliban also believe ISIS-K is way too useful for the US in the peace negotiations. They believe the presence and existence of ISIS-K could be used by the US to demand counter-terrorism forces stay behind after the peace deal. The Taliban want US forces out. The Taliban fear, ISIS-K would be a convenient tool to say, if you cannot destroy them, we need our military and intelligence footprint.
Foreign Policy asked if the peace deal is dead on arrival? Not just yet. Some are fighting to kill it, while some are fighting to preserve it. Afghan politics is divided, so are the opinions of veteran military and diplomats. To start a sectarian conflict, ISIS-K will continue its terrible attacks for its agenda. The Fatemiyoun is less of a threat inside Afghanistan than it is made to appear. ISIS-K attacks will be used for politics between the US, Taliban, and Afghan government, with all trying to emphasize their view on the peace deal through the lens of these horrific attacks. ISIS and the Fatemiyoun are thus, proxies, in more than one sense. Their actions are watched and exploited by their sponsors and enemies alike.
ISIS-K is a catalyst. It is a spoiler, but its actual battlefield power is limited. It has proven resilient in some areas and will use the current government infighting, the offensive against the Taliban, US withdrawal, and the COVID-19 pandemic to lick its wounds. ISIS-K will be able to grow back in those communities where it has some local support. It is up to the Afghan government, power brokers, and the Taliban to stick to peace. When they turn their weapons on each other, ISIS-K will thrive in the vacuum. ISIS-K only has space to incite sectarian violence if the other powers grant it in their political and military conflict.
The US-Taliban peace deal is under much pressure. Despite 40 years of conflict, the country seems on the verge of being ripe for peace. However, fears about losing are dominant in parts of the cities that have been free of Taliban influence for the past 20 years, especially amongst the educated young and winners of the past 20 years. Meanwhile, the countryside has been ravaged by conflict lines moving across the country like wandering dunes. Many villages are ready for peace. Cities are ready too, but not for the price that they fear – the return of Sharia rule as used by the Taliban until 2001. War will go on as long as this equation does not change. Unfortunately, ISIS is one of those groups trying to change it. It needs to be stopped.