The South Asia Channel

Capture the Flag in Afghanistan

ISIS is trying to make inroads into Afghanistan but how likely are Afghan’s to replace their white Taliban flags with the black ISIS flag?

Rally in Pakistan
397364 05: A young activist of the Jama''at-i-Islami (JI) party waves a flag of Taliban Islamic militia, atop of Pakistani policemen during an anti-government rally on November 16, 2001 in Islamabad, Pakistan. The rally condemned U.S. support by Pakistani government of Chief Executive General Pervez Musharraf following the recent developments in neighboring Afghanistan. (Photo by Visual News/Getty Images)

It appears the Islamic State’s territorial motivations extend well beyond Syria and Iraq, as recent reports reveal the organization’s recruitment and expansion efforts in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, has established a redoubt in Zamin Dawar area of Kajaki district, according to tribal elders and senior U.S. officials. Moreover, the potential rise of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) in Afghanistan and the international star power their leader, Abu Bakr Baghdadi, holds presents a dilemma for Afghan Taliban seeking their own post-Karzai reconciliation, or continued resistance with the Ghani-Abdullah coalition government.

Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim, a mid-level Taliban commander with deep connections to the illicit narcotics industry and who served as shadow governor of Uruzgan from 2007 to at least 2009, has established a new base of operations for ISIS in northern Helmand. Recently his militia clashed with northern Helmand shadow governor Mullah Ahmad Shah, resulting in a half dozen killed; other reports suggest up to twenty killed. According to an Afghan Army general in Helmand, Rauf is planting ISIS cells throughout numerous Helmand districts; another general insists they have spread into neighboring Herat and Farah provinces; while two senators in the Afghan parliament assert ISIS operates in the northern Faryab and eastern Ghazni provinces.

A tribal leader told members of the media that Rauf is replacing Taliban white flags with ISIS black flags, likely a symbol to residents of the evolving power dynamics. Rising a new resistance flag in Helmand will not only cause complications for Afghanistan’s nascent security forces, but also for Taliban seeking to challenge the writ of the state in an era absent of U.S. and British troops.

There are reasons insurgents may choose to switch sides. For one, Rauf has offered up to $500 per month for Taliban fighters to defect. That is significantly higher than the typical ten dollars a day Taliban foot soldiers receive, and with the amount of cash reserves ISIS holds, salaries have the potential to increase if Rauf’s new militia proves resilient. Second, the Taliban are competing with a marketing goliath, as ISIS launches a revolutionary propaganda campaign the likes of which the Western world has never seen. The rise of lone-wolf terrorists in Australia, Canada, and France may be attributable to the quality and quantity of ISIS propaganda on the unregulated Internet. On a smaller, but equally dangerous scale, last summer, ISIS promotional pamphlets written in Dari and Pashto were disseminated in Pakistan and refugee settlements along the Afghan border, and recent reports suggest ISIS night letters (resistance propaganda) have been posted in public.

Real proof of ISIS resilience may be its ability to infect local mosques in southern Afghanistan. Long considered the impetus for the rise of the ‘neo-Taliban’ in Afghanistan, any successful jihadi organization in Afghanistan requires support from the ulema (religious leaders). Some Islamist propagandists — without ties to the Taliban — have already demonstrated themselves as vociferous mouth-pieces for ISIS in Kunar and Jalalabad provinces — areas where radical foreign groups have historically found opportunity and safe havens. Coupled with the meteoric rise of Baghdadi as the new ‘Emir’ of an Islamic Caliphate challenged by the Western world, the inevitable process of bandwagoning seems possible if ISIS gains a significant foothold in southern Afghanistan.

Still, how likely is the ISIS death-cult philosophy to hold up among a pious Pashtun culture that prides itself on humility, honor, and tradition? Or are these traits part of an Afghanistan that has long been washed away by the tidal wave of empires and ideological battles? If any nation or culture is ready for an ideological revolution, it may be the Pashtuns — long split by borders, bureaucracies, and internal feuds that leave their identity in question. These are similar ingredients that proved to be powerfully contagious to the Sunni nation as it faced economic embargoes, state collapse, and bureaucratic marginalization by governing elites in Iraq. ISIS rode the wave of disenfranchisement and frustration as the Sunni Army in Iraq defected to a more barbarous, but less uncertain movement. The Pashtuns of southern Afghanistan face uncertainty and hesitation towards the Afghan government. But how likely are they to accept Baghdadi’s uncompromising call to total war?

Even the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, has limitations to acceptable measures of violence and has issued codes of conduct to battlefield units to limit barbarity and prevent civilian alienation. In 2012 and 2013, the emergence of a foreign, younger, and more aggressive Taliban in select villages of eastern and southern Afghanistan led to increased predation on the civilian population, the closure of public schools, and barbaric murders of local notables. Villages in Andar, Panjwai, and Chaghcharan districts of Afghanistan rallied vigilante movements against extremist predations and successfully took back their villages. In these districts, and many others throughout Afghanistan, villages were fed up with the violence and the arbitrary rules enforced by radicals. Many ulema and village councils backed the vigilantes and reached out to governing authorities for aid. Instead of creating a tear in the fabric of society, extremism proved to be a rallying cry against those who aim to divide.

Recently, Baghdadi allegedly mocked Taliban leader Mullah Omar as an “ignorant, illiterate warlord, unworthy of spiritual or political respect.” If true, these words are powerful indeed, and may prove costly towards any attempt at spreading ISIS to Afghanistan. Part of Baghdadi’s strategy behind deriding the “commander of the faithful” could be a growing debate between Islamist extremists regarding the true identity of the “Emir of the Believers” Taliban and their defectors may need to iron these arguments out on the battlefield.

It is clear, that the Taliban suffer from deep internal divisions and lack a coherent strategy going forward. However, for those willing to join the vast majority of Afghans supporting a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan, joining the mainstream should be top of their agenda. Now, more than ever, negotiation and reconciliation between the new Afghan government and ‘moderate’ Taliban could drive a significant wedge between extremists committed to violence and willing to unite with ISIS, and more practical factions focused on moving forward with their country rather than opposed to it.

Visual News/Getty Images

Matthew P. Dearing is an assistant professor at the National Defense University. The views expressed are the author’s own.