Afghanistan faces a new threat after the departure of international troops from the country: a growing "Islamic State" presence. But is it a real threat or just played up by local officials to attract Western attention?
"Islamic State (IS) has gained presence in Afghanistan," Farid Bakhtwar, head of the provincial council in Afghanistan's western Farah province told DW. He says the militant group currently fighting in Iraq and Syria has started recruiting new members, including former Taliban fighters. Since the beginning of this year, Afghan officials and police have repeatedly warned about an "IS" presence in several parts of the country.
Even Afghan President Ashraf Ghani spoke about the threat posted by "IS" at last week's Munich Security Conference. "The threat of this ecology is global, but Afghanistan is the meeting ground of this global ecology, lest we forget this and take our eyes elsewhere, there will be consequences," Ghani warned.
Mullah Abdul Rauf, a former Guantánamo detainee who declared allegiance to the militant organization, was killed in a drone strike in Afghanistan on February 9, according to security officials. General Atiqullah Amarkhail, a former air force commander and a member of the Afghan government's advisory council on military issues, said that Rauf's killing is proof "IS" is operating in the country.
Graeme Smith, a senior Afghanistan analyst for the International Crisis Group (ICG), is of the view that President Ghani might be looking for ways to sustain international focus on Afghanistan. "He sees foreign resources dwindling as troops leave. Or probably he is genuinely concerned about the emergence of a militant threat that seems far more extreme than the Taliban," Smith told DW.
A closed chapter?
Afghanistan is not on the international agenda anymore. Many observers believe that what has been anticipated and feared by Afghans for years has now become a reality. The West's focus on the war-torn country has somewhat shifted towards Syria and Iraq. Countries like Ukraine and Nigeria have also grown in significance for the United States and the European Union.
But that does not mean that an "IS" presence in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan should not be taken seriously. Recent developments prove that the "IS" issue is not just rumors; a number of Afghan militants have joined the Sunni militant group and are recruiting members for the outfit.
"Some officials in the Afghan government are actually downplaying the threat, reflecting a general reluctance to acknowledge emerging security concerns," Smith said. "At the same time, some think the 'IS' threat could attract more funding from international donors," he added.
Abdul Ghafoor Liwal, director of the Kabul-based Regional Studies Center, says he wouldn't be surprised if the Afghan government was "exaggerating" these threats. The analyst told DW that at the same time Afghan officials should take the matter seriously, "because the group, in whatever form, can pose a serious threat not only to Afghanistan but to the entire region."
Despite the fact that the "IS" presence in Afghanistan seems quite limited, there is a possibility that the militant group might get assistance, and possibly fighters, from neighboring Pakistan.
The Islamic republic has a reputation as a breeding ground for Sunni militant groups. Afghan authorities have repeatedly accused Islamabad of supporting the Taliban and other militant groups and sending them into Afghanistan to destabilize the government. Although Pakistan does not consider "IS" an ally or a group which can fulfill its strategic interests in the region, things can change. The Saudi-Wahabbi doctrine of Islam can also be a binding factor.
In September 2014, Faridullah Khan, a DW correspondent in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, confirmed "IS" was looking to gain influence in the nuclear-armed country. The group distributed pamphlets in a number of northwestern Pakistani towns and some provinces of Afghanistan. "In the pamphlet, 'IS' made an appeal to the local population to support its 'struggle' for the establishment of an Islamic caliphate," he said.
"The 'IS' ideology finds resonance in Pakistan. There are umpteen religious groups that openly endorse it; however, they are quite small in size. But I fear the group can't still count on their backing," Peshawar-based expert, Iqbal Khattak, told DW.
Michael Kugelman, Afghanistan expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, agrees: "It is a country that has the presence of both hard-line ideological capital and militant groups that could encourage 'IS' infiltration. Additionally, Pakistan suffers from the same kind of sectarian cleavages that have allowed the virulently anti-Shiite IS to exploit and deepen its influence in the Middle East."
Last week, Maulana Abu Bakr, a Taliban leader in Pakistan's tribal agency of Bajaur, defected and launched the 'IS' branch for Khorasan - a geographical region that covers Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of neighboring countries.
The new branch announced that Abu Bakr "has left Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and given bayat [oath of allegiance] to Sheikh Abu Bakr al Baghdadi (IS chief)." The short statement was published in Arabic, Urdu, Bengali, and English on the Internet.
Experts say there is a possibility that if more Taliban commanders and fighters joined "IS," this could result in the TTP's disintegration, and the members of the Pakistani establishment that are currently backing the TTP would put their weight behind "IS." It is also likely that the two groups would agree to work together for a common cause – establishing the Islamic caliphate in the AfPak region. Both scenarios would be devastating for Afghanistan and the entire region.
Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, former foreign minister under the Taliban, says the common anti-US sentiment can bring the Taliban and "IS" closer. However, he admits that the differences between the two groups are deep. "The Taliban believe in a sovereign country and fight for Afghanistan unlike 'IS.' There are also cultural differences between the two," he told DW. Muttawakil believes that a formal presence of IS in Afghanistan could eventually lead to violent clashes between the two groups.
"It would be a nightmare scenario of epic proportions. You would essentially have one of the most terrifying militant groups to emerge in decades (and perhaps ever) joining forces with another formidable fundamentalist force," said Kugelman.
"But the good news is that nightmare scenarios rarely come true - and I think that will be the case here. Any nexus between the two groups will likely be ideological, and not operational or tactical."