November Issue 2015
Tug of War
On Monday, September 28, 2014, 14 years after being removed from power, the Afghan Taliban, in a show of unprecedented strength and unity, overran the northern city of Kunduz. The Afghan National Army’s counter-offensive to retake the city the next day was casually swatted away. Two weeks later, the group announced that they were abandoning Kunduz, “for the sake of the civilians…we can come back and seize the city whenever we want.”
The fall of Kunduz took the world by surprise. Nobody believed the Taliban were strong enough, or united enough, to overrun a city. And overnight, the stories of discord within the Taliban ranks, of possible mutinies against the new leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansur, have all but disappeared.
However, “Mullah Mansur isn’t out of the woods just yet,” says Abubakar Siddique, senior correspondent for Radio Free Europe and author of the book, The Pashtun Question. “Many Quetta Shura Taliban leaders are against Mansur’s leadership. Additionally, the stories of his alleged riches make him very different from Mullah Mohammad Omar who, by most accounts, was an ascetic.” Other sources suggest that while differences do exist within the group on the issue of whether to rejoin the stalled peace process, the issue of Mansur’s leadership is now “not a problem.”
The problem is the Islamic State.
During the past two years, the Islamic State (IS), or Daesh, as it is also known, has made inroads in Afghanistan, with a decent number of middle-tier militant commanders, including the former spokesperson of the Afghan Taliban, Shahidullah Shahid, pledging their allegience to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. “Daesh has been decimated in the south, but remains a threat in the east,” says Siddique. He maintains that the recent claims of fighters from Central Asia joining the IS have also not translated into any considerable boost for the Middle Eastern group.
At the same time it is widely known that Al Qaeda’s leadership has left Northern Pakistan and is currently regrouping within the Taliban heartland. This news was corroborated by a story in The New York Times, which also reported massive raids against two Al Qaeda sanctuaries in the south. The militant group is well and truly back.
With a resurgent Taliban, an emerging Islamic State and a recovering Al Qaeda, are we now looking at a three-way tug of war in Afghanistan?
The short answer is, no. And to understand this, one must understand the organic nature of the militants. They are in the business of violence. It does not necessarily matter who they are fighting for. In the two years before Kunduz, the Taliban were being seen as a rapidly weakening movement, looking for a peace agreement as a way out. It was during this time period that Daesh made inroads into the militant community. It is doing the same in Pakistan today. Militants here need a new paymaster. A new brand. Exactly what Daesh has to offer. Going by this, a militant who is a Taliban today, could have been Al Qaeda yesterday, and may well be Daesh tomorrow. Does this imply a possible collusion in the lower ranks?
If one is to believe reports, the Taliban conquest of Kunduz was supported by both Al Qaeda operatives and Daesh militants.
On this side of the Durand, going as far back as October 2014, there were reports of Daesh making inroads in Balochistan and reaching out to the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat for finding common ground. Recently, a leading newspaper reported that law enforcement agencies have “uncovered the existence of a number of terrorist groups inspired by the Islamic State ideology.” While some experts believe that this is not the most opportune time for a new brand of terrorists to create room for themselves (that too in a landscape filled with all sorts of terrorists), others believe that militants escaping the military action against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) may well be attracted to the IS.
And finally, there is the case of the TTP. Many believe that the reason why the TTP has not renewed its allegiance to the Afghan Taliban is because they are looking towards Daesh. But that would be over simplifying the complex nature of the relationship that exists between the TTP and the Afghan Taliban.
“There was never anything official between the two,” says Siddique. “The TTP pledged a nominal allegiance to Mullah Omar, but its aims and aspirations are fundamentally different from those of the Afghan Taliban.”
Yet, a cosy working relationship exists between them. The TTP head, Mullah Fazlullah, continues to operate from the Afghan regions of Kunar and Nuristan, which cannot be possible without the patronage of the Afghan Taliban (and also if one were to believe rumours, the NDS), whereas the entire leadership of the Afghan Taliban operates from the densely populated Pashtun regions of Quetta.
As another analyst pointed out, “If there was some kind of serious and official relationship between these two groups, they would have stakes in the futures of both countries — the Afghans on this side, and the TTP there.”
There is a general consensus that for the time being, there is way too much unrest within the jihadi community to create space for a brand new entrant, Daesh. However, many believe that Daesh’s successes in the Middle East will spur ‘inspired attacks’ by groups of militants looking for a new brand to operate under.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s November 2015 issue.
The writer is a journalist based in Lahore. He is the current managing editor of MIT Technology Review Pakistan, a bi-monthly science and technology magazine.