December 2016 had been an eventful month for Afghanistan war. For the first time ever Russia & Iran has not only publicly admitted their contacts with Taliban but also defended its stance on the issue.
The recent scandals started when top US General, commander of Resolute Support Mission & U.S. Forces Afghanistan Gen John William Nicholson, Jr, claimed “Russia has overtly lent legitimacy to the Taliban” & “Shifting to Iran, you have a similar situation. There have been linkages between the Iranians and the Taliban”
Russian Ministry of foreign affairs responded on 7 December with “Talks are the only way to restore peace in Afghanistan, and they must involve the Taliban as a member of the political process”. Iran then admitted it invited Taliban leaders, In mid-December, to “Islamic unity summit” in Tehran. Moscow on December 27, hosted a China Pakistan Russia trilateral meeting on Afghanistan & especially IS khorasan (ISIS in Afghanistan). Russia is rallying global & regional powers over ISIS.
Genesis Of IS Khorasan (ISK)
The first signs of ISK formation appeared in March 2014. Like In Iraq & Syria, it was formed by Al Qaeda dissidents. Dissidents like Abu Ubaydah al Lubnani, Abdul Aziz (Brother of Sheikh Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi) among seven others. But this went ignored as ISK controlled neither territory nor had any manpower to do so. And ironically neither was it officially confirmed by ISIS.
This first major boost of manpower came after Pakistani offensive Zarb-e-Azb, which dislodged TTP in FATA & especially in Waziristan. ISK absorbed TTP fighters in retreat who felt betrayed by Afghan Taliban for not coming to their aid, &/or were disappointed in TTP leader Fazlullah’s leadership.
In October 2014, 4 months after the start of Zarb-e-Azb, a big chunk of TTP leadership & their fighters declared allegiance to ISIS. Leaders like Hafiz Khan Saeed (TTP commander in Orakzai who was contestant for TTP leadership along Fazlullah), Shahidullah Shahid (TTP main spokesperson), Hafiz Quran Daulat, Gul Zaman, Mufti Hassan & Khalid Mansoor, TTP chiefs for Kurram agency, Khyber agency, Peshawar & Hangu district respectively. In one week, Half of TTP leadership in Pakistani tribal areas now were in ISK.
In January 2015 this ISK leadership gave Baya to Baghdadi & infamous ISIS Spokesman al-Adnani confirmed ISK as ISIS’s Khoarsan branch and Hafiz Khan Saeed its leader.
Threats posed by IS Khorasan
Islamabad isn’t underestimating threat from ISK. ISK is almost entirely TTP which means it automatically has anti-Pakistan orientation. ISK is allied to Jamat-ul-ahrar (JA), which has been the most deadly TTP branch and responsible for 2014 Wahgah border bombing and March 2016 Gulshan-e-Iqbal bombing. Before the split with TTP, JA commander Omar Khalid Khorasani aka Abdul wali was also linked to the gruesome 2014 Army Public School Peshawar Attack.
Apart from that ISK directly poses a security threat to Pakistan for it is based in South Nangarhar which borders Parachinar in Pakistan. Parachinar has a sizable population of Shia Muslims.
As for Russia, it has fought ISIS in Syria & considers it a major threat. ISIS has more than 3000 Russians in its ranks who it fears will bring chaos upon return. Russia has the same concern about ISK who has many Tajik & Uzbeks in its ranks who can foment trouble in central Asia, Russia’s backyard. This fear is also shared by Tajikistan’s govt which prompted Russia to deploy more troops on Tajikistan-Afghanistan border.
It would be unfair to say that ISK is Russia’s only concern in Afghanistan, as Russian Special Envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, said in an interview “If we did something like that (land bases in Afghanistan) in Mexico, would it not be disturbing for America? Russia will never tolerate this”
China fears Uighurs militants in ISIS’s ranks, but also ETIM fighting alongside Taliban in northern Afghanistan. Uighurs militants took part in battle of Kunduz (2015). Since then China has hosted Afghan Taliban delegation to discuss peace talks among other things.
Iran too have similar legitimate fears. If ISK is allowed to grow further, its onslaught against Shia hazaras will trigger another refugee crisis for Iran. Other than that, having another terrorist group at its border wont sit well with Tehran.
India on other hand does not want anyone to view ISK as greater threat than Taliban as it is shielded by Pakistan acting as a buffer. On the contrary Indian companies have been caught supplying ISIS. And RAWs contacts within former TTP leadership also saves Indian personnel from ISK’s brutality who have withstood barrage of airstrikes for two years.
To curb this threat Iran, China & Russia has cosied up to Taliban. They feel Taliban is the only effective force in Afghanistan to tackle ISIS. Taliban chief Mansour was killed in Pakistan coming from Masshad, Iran. And now public admission of invitation to Taliban leaders further proves that Iran considers ISIS a more dangerous threat.
China & Russia, permanent members of UNSC, now favour taking Taliban off the UN Sanctions list.
US & Kabul Reaction
Both US & Kabul’s reaction to ISK & alliance against ISK has been discouraging. They have allowed ISK to exist in Nangarhar for more than two years. Afghan forces have failed to dislodge ISK & US doesn’t want to commit men. It has been hitting ISK with occasional airstrikes. When has drone strikes ever defeated militants without a simultaneous ground offensive? TTP was being hit by drones too & they only grew stronger, it was Zarb-e-Azb that defeated it.
If ISK is allowed to spread like ISIS, it will be almost undefeatable in Afghan terrain, as it is backed by greater cash reserves & propaganda infrastructure than Taliban.
US Gen Nicholson called Russian initiative “undermining NATO’s effort” while Afghanistan expressed its “displeasure” over trilateral meeting. But It is the incompetence & half hearted efforts of Kabul & Washington that has forced the Anti-ISK alliance into existence, who by defeating ISK & restarting peace talks, might finally bring an end to the longest war of this century.