By Eleanor Beevor
The battle for Afghanistan was never really over. Though the number of foreign soldiers in the country is much smaller than it was several years ago, the war between the Taliban and the U.S.-led coalition and Afghan forces has gone on. But things are changing fast. Talk of peace with the Taliban has come and gone for years. Yet right now, chances of a peace process have gone from being a distant hope to a serious possibility.
In a stunning shift in the policies of both sides, American envoys met Taliban officials in Qatar on July 25th to discuss a potential peace process. The Americans have decided to build on the groundwork laid by a temporary ceasefire between Afghan and Taliban forces over the Eid al-Fitr holiday in June. Moving scenes of Taliban fighters celebrating with Afghan forces and civilians captured the imaginations of the international media, and of the Afghan people.
However, these scenes of tranquility were shattered on June 16th as 36 people in eastern Afghanistan – civilians, Taliban, and Afghan forces enjoying the calm, and each other’s company - were killed by an ISIS suicide bomber. A moment that showed Afghans what peace might look like was brutally cut short. ISIS speaks of everything as religious, but for them nothing is sacred when it comes to war. Yet if the bombing was intended to shatter hopes for peace, it may in fact have helped achieve the opposite.
President Ashraf Ghani extended the ceasefire for a further eight days after the attack, and the Taliban cautiously reciprocated. NATO and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced their support for the move, and for a peace process. Though the ceasefire did not officially endure past the end of the month, it appeared to work as a powerful trust-building measure. It also quelled a degree of doubt as to whether the Taliban were united enough to negotiate with – the enormous majority of fighters obeyed the ceasefire, suggesting a strong enough chain of command for an effective negotiation.
But the question remains of whether ISIS in Afghanistan will be able to damage a potential peace process between its enemies – which include the Taliban, American-led coalition forces and the Afghan government. A potential reconciliation between them, and any united efforts the newly-reconciled might make against ISIS, could be disastrous for the terrorist group. All parties determining Afghanistan’s future will have to keep an extremely close watch on the threat that ISIS presents to peace.
But where did this group of ISIS fighters come from, and what does it seek to do? ISIS refers to its Afghan units as the "Khorosan Province". “Khorosan” is a reference to an early name for the lands of central and south Asia. "Province" implies a subsection of the global caliphate that the terrorist group’s founding fathers in Iraq and Syria claimed to be building. In reality, there was little coordination or shared strategy between the Khorosan group and the leadership of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, even when the latter had a “capital” in Raqqa and swathes of territory to their name.
The Islamic State (ISIS) in Afghanistan. (AFP)
Yet ISIS Khorosan Province (ISIS KP) in Afghanistan has taken a firm foothold, and will not be dislodged anytime soon. The group had been attempting to set up a de-facto capital in the Deh Bala area of Nangarhar Province in the east of the country. U.S. and Afghan forces have been fighting to clear this region for the past few months. On July 7th, U.S. Officials announced that the operation was near completion and that ISIS Khorosan would not be able to use the province as a logistical base any more. 167 ISIS fighters were reportedly killed during the operation.
But even without a “capital”, ISIS in Afghanistan will be a force to be reckoned with. They are divided amongst themselves, and whilst that is in some ways advantageous to their enemies, it also makes the threat that the group presents harder to contain. Ahmad Shuja Jamal, the Editor in Chief of Georgetown Public Policy Review and an expert on Afghanistan, told Al Bawaba:
“The scale of the IS-KP threat is significant and growing. There is a segment of IS based in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan and primarily made up of Pakistani Orakzai tribesmen and former Pakistani Taliban members. The northern segment is primarily Central Asian militants that are trying to establish links with local Uzbek militants. The two segments have significant differences and have shown that they have difficulty getting along.
Any future fight against IS-KP in Afghanistan will have take into consideration the capabilities of each of its segments. The eastern segment can cross the border into Pakistan and back. The northern IS-KP is spread over a greater geographic area across different provinces, and so the security forces have not been able to contain IS-KP north to certain pockets of one province yet.”
And despite the recent military victories against the eastern segment, violence has persisted. ISIS KP has been responsible for a number of attacks in Jalalabad, and may have been behind an armed assault on a medical facility in the city on July 28th. They have also brought the vicious sectarian violence of their Levantine namesake to Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s Hazara people, the majority of whom are Shia, have been regularly targeted by ISIS. Ten Hazaras were killed in an attack in Kabul in March, whilst gathering to commemorate the death of one of their leaders. If sectarian violence becomes deeper entrenched in Afghanistan, a lasting peace will be much harder to institute.
As brutal as ISIS KP has been to Afghanistan’s Shia, its relations with the Taliban have been little better. Though both groups espouse hardline forms of Sunni religious rule over those they control, their different aims and origins have set them at odds with each other. The Taliban were originally a coalition of Deobandi religious students-turned-militias, who succeeded in taking control of much of Afghanistan in the wake of the collapse of Soviet rule. Unlike ISIS, the Taliban were never “global” jihadists – they had no interest in exporting their Islamist rule beyond Afghanistan, and aimed only to rule their country. This they were able to do up until 2001, when Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s guest Osama Bin Laden attacked the Twin Towers on September 11th. The Taliban were ousted by the subsequent American invasion of Afghanistan.
ISIS, meanwhile, was formed from a bitter split with Al Qaeda, and it shaped its own identity in perpetual opposition to its parent group. It has portrayed both Al Qaeda and the Taliban as degenerate and un-Islamic in its propaganda. It has no time for compromise, no interest in Afghan nationalism, and it demands total submission from its affiliates. Other armed groups must become a part of the caliphate, or suffer the consequences. The Taliban bluntly refused ISIS KP’s invitation to submit to its Khorosan Province in 2015, and the two groups have been at war ever since. The Taliban at one point its own “special forces” unit of a thousand fighters whose sole mission was to attack ISIS.
ISIS KP is already isolated, and growing friendliness between its enemies will only work to its disadvantage. Hopefully, all parties to a peace process will not allow ISIS KP’s actions to come between them. The Taliban had for years insisted that they would not negotiate while foreign troops were on Afghan soil. Their recent meetings with American officials suggest that they might be relaxing this policy. However, the Taliban have also historically been keen to avoid any appearance of concession to foreign forces, and this may prove a sticking point again later. If the US and their NATO allies forced to choose between keeping their troops in the fight against ISIS KP or supporting the peace process, they will need to bear in mind that damage to the peace process will ultimately benefit ISIS KP.
US soldiers take up positions during an operation against ISIS militants (AFP)
To what extent ISIS KP is being considered in discussions of peace is unclear. Ahmad Shuja Jamal said:
“We do not know yet how IS-KP might factor into these negotiations, if at all in the near term. IS-KP’s capabilities in the medium- to long-term will determine what shape the US-Taliban talks will have. Things will look different if IS-KP is degraded significantly than if it further grows in a year or two from now.”
But there is good reason to hope that change for Afghanistan is on the horizon. And that reason is that the Afghan people are making their demands for peace increasingly clear. A grassroots citizen’s effort, the People’s Peace Movement (PPM), has drawn headlines all over the world. And despite the dangers that the participants have faced, the movement has been astonishingly durable. It began in March, when a suicide bomb in Helmand Province led residents to announce a hunger strike unless the Taliban agreed to a temporary ceasefire.
Even when the Taliban threatened, people continued demonstrating. They then began a long march through southern Afghanistan all the way to Kabul. On the way, they have been stopping in villages to spread their message, and to welcome new marchers to their numbers. Heartbreaking stories have been shared. And despite the landmines, anger from Taliban fighters, the exhaustion and the risks, the peace marchers have kept going. Now, it seems they have the wind behind them. Ahmad Shurja Jamal spent time with the demonstrators in the past week. He believes that the PPM echoes the hopes of a nation:
“The People’s Peace Movement (PPM) is ongoing, and it has the potential to be a genuine catalyst for peace. The activists are daring to tell the Taliban that they are tired of the war. This is a powerful message about the Taliban’s legitimacy – whatever your political ends, your violent means are unacceptable.
The Taliban cannot ignore this message for long and expect to portray themselves as speaking for the people in the areas it controls. The People’s Peace Movement is giving the doves in the Taliban central commission an added talking point, one more reason to point to as they argue for peace. That is a significant accomplishment in itself.”
And these brave calls for peace can ultimately threaten ISIS-KP as well. Despite its propaganda efforts, ISIS-KP is performing abysmally when it comes to hearts and minds. Ahmad Shurja Jamal said:
“IS has proved to be resilient in Afghanistan despite heavy military pressure against them, but their Achilles Heel is that IS-KP does not represent local grievances – it is an alien force using brutal tactics that are driving people away from it.”
The more the cry for peace grows among Afghans, the fewer people ISIS KP will be able to recruit. The group will likely continue to try and spoil reconciliation efforts. But if the People’s Peace Movement is anything to go by, there is good reason to hope that Afghans will not let them.
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