- By Najib SharifiA former journalist, Najib Sharifi is a member of Afghanistan Analysis and Awareness (A3), a Kabul based think tank. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"We don’t accept compromise or humiliation. We will either become captors or martyrs. We either want honor and liberty or death with nobility and martyrdom. On the path of Allah, we consider imprisonment worship, we consider extradition vacation, and we deem death martyrdom."
These are a few of the propaganda messages from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) published in Fatah (meaning "victory" in Arabic), a pamphlet published in local languages and distributed to Afghans and Pakistanis in Peshawar, the Pakistani city that borders Afghanistan. These pamphlets invite citizens of both Afghanistan and Pakistan to pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-declared caliph of ISIS, and join the jihad against non-believers.
Just three weeks after the pamphlets began appearing, it was reported that ISIS aligned militants launched their first brutal offensive in Afghanistan’s central province of Ghazni alongside Taliban fighters, which left more than 100 people dead. Carrying the black flags of ISIS, they overran several villages, beheaded fifteen family members of local police officers, and burned at least 60 homes. This was a shocking incident to many observers in Afghanistan, as they believed Afghanistan is out of the range and off the agenda of ISIS.
ISIS’s encroachment into Pakistan and Afghanistan comes at a time when extremism and the violence waged under such ideology, might be at its peak in both countries. At the same time, political deadlocks caused by the struggle over power combined with the failure of the governments in both countries and the wider region to respond to the legitimate aspirations of their people have significantly undermined the government’s legitimacy in both countries, thus calling into question the very concept of modern nation states.
So why has ISIS chosen to reach out to this region, bypassing the many other nations bordering its current stronghold in Syria and Iraq?
The consistent failure of secular governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan to deliver security, justice, and public services for the citizens has contributed to growing space for extremism and sympathy for alternative forms of government. This state of affairs has turned the environment conducive for acceptance of an alternative, even a hardline Caliphate — which ISIS has proclaimed and promised to impose across the Muslim world. ISIS regularly boasts of its efficiency in delivering justice and public services in their propaganda campaign.
Additionally, over the past decade, extremist ideology and violent jihad has been systematically promoted in Afghanistan and Pakistan by regional states, such as Saudi Arabia, Gulf countries, and Pakistan’s powerful military establishment and their proxy groups. These countries see violent extremism as a strategic instrument to gain leverage in regional politics. On the other hand, the sectarian struggle of dominance by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran have directly and indirectly created the conditions for the growth of extremist ideologies — making Afghanistan and Pakistan more hospitable for ideologies like that of ISIS. For instance, Saudi Arabia, in a bid to counter Iran’s growing influence in the region, delegitimizes Shia Islam in the eyes of Sunni Muslims and institutes its own religious leadership throughout the Muslim world — making significant investments in promoting Salafism, an ultra-rigid interpretation that is seen as too detached from mainstream Islam and is followed by many terrorist groups, including al Qaeda and ISIS.
There is also proximity between ISIS and one of Afghanistan’s dominant extremist groups, the Taliban, in terms of ideology, aims, and methods, although they are not affiliated. During the Taliban’s rule in the 1990s, they too massacred Shia Afghans and vandalized shrines and sacred historical sites — most spectacularly the giant Buddha statues of Bamiyan province. They sheltered global jihadists, carried out public executions, and engaged in similar brutal acts, such as forceful expulsion and burning the houses of those people who lived in the areas of the anti-Taliban resistance force — tactics that ISIS uses today to cement their power through fear and violence.
Like ISIS, the Taliban, too, harbored ambitions of expanding the Islamic Emirate they created beyond the borders of Afghanistan, based on the belief that Islam does not recognize borders. Their reclusive leader, Mullah Omar, after capturing Kabul in 1996, was declared Amir ul-Momineen (Leader of the Faithful), a title assumed periodically by powerful leaders in Islamic history. They provided sanctuary for international jihadists and mobilized them to fight against the anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan.
Given the fertile ground created by the historical events in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is no surprise that ISIS aims for the smooth and rapid increase of their influence in both countries. In fact, at least one Pakistani jihadist group, Tehreek-e-Khilafat (the Caliphate Movement), and several hardline insurgent commanders based in Afghanistan and Pakistan have already pledged allegiance to the leader of ISIS.
ISIS appears to have assessed the situation and wants to take both tactical and strategic advantage by reaching out to Afghanistan and Pakistan. In fact, every declaration of allegiance to ISIS in this part of the world and every battle fought under ISIS’s flag — no matter how small or big — is a victory for their sophisticated public relations campaign.
But there remains the possibility that ISIS’s inroads in Afghanistan and Pakistan might provoke a power struggle among religious militant groups in the area who have long pledged allegiance to Mullah Omar and the Afghan Taliban. Most of the Taliban commanders as well as al Qaeda leaders still consider Mullah Omar their leader. This was evident in a recent statement by al Qaeda’s leader Ayman Zawahiri who renewed his pledge of oath to Mullah Omar in a newsletter released in July 2014.
Such a struggle over the global leadership of jihadi movements will encourage non-ISIS militant groups to attempt to demonstrate their relevance and attract attention at a time when ISIS is consistently dominating world headlines. The competition could result in expansion of terror, violence, and extremism in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and beyond. In fact, many believe that Zawahiri’s recent announcement that it had established an al Qaeda branch in India is both a pre-emptive move and a direct reaction to the growing influence and fame of ISIS. The new group would allow al Qaeda to raise its profile among wealthy donors in the Middle East, maintain its global relevance, and also recruit new volunteers in the South Asian region. Yet ISIS’s organization, efficiency, and public relations capabilities are far better than that of al Qaeda and other militant groups, making ISIS the more attractive group in the eyes of extremists in the region, particularly the more radical, younger generation of violent extremists.
In sum, ISIS’s inroad in the two countries will escalate violence and make the already complicated state of extremism and associated politics more difficult to manage.
The speedy growth of religious extremism and militancy has surprisingly sparked little alarm among the regional countries, including Afghanistan and Pakistan. The birth of ISIS and its declaration of a new state is probably the most radical change to the political geography of the Middle East since World War I, considering ISIS has breached many countries’ post-World War I borders.
On the other hand, the belief that violent extremists are interested only in "Muslim against Muslim" struggles is wishful thinking — a matter I highlighted in an opinion piece two years ago. ISIS has demonstrated that it would fight and kill anybody who doesn’t adhere to its distorted version of Islam.
A holistic approach to address the threat posed by ISIS and other violent extremist groups is key. As past experience shows, any quick-fix solution and incomprehensive approach is doomed to fail. The struggle against ISIS is ideological and political. ISIS will not be eliminated unless the radical ideology is fought by means of soft power, meaningful measures taken to halt systematic radicalization, and crucially, issues of governance and justice are addressed.
Yes, killing violent extremists with hard power by bombs and rockets, like what the United States and some allied countries began, is one element of the solution but it can by no means address the root causes of the problem. In fact, utilizing excessive hard power can generate sympathy towards the extremists amongst the general population.
U.S. President Barack Obama’s strategy in fighting ISIS does demonstrate the United States’ seriousness in fighting the group but it appears a central element of the U.S. strategy does not include countering the extremist ideology. To this end, it would have been much wiser if Obama had appeared among U.S. diplomats when presenting his strategy to fight ISIS rather than American soldiers.
Above all, critical tasks lie ahead for the countries in the region themselves. And among them, Afghanistan and Pakistan must treat the matter seriously. Otherwise, the two countries may descend into a new abyss of devastating religious and sectarian violence like Iraq and Syria.
Najib Sharifi is a political analyst at Afghanistan Analysis and Awareness (A3), a Kabul based think tank. He can be reached via email@example.com.