Is there a ISIS threat to Afghanistan?

After sounding the alarm bell on the ISIS presence in Afghanistan at the end of 2015, the American military is now saying that it has almost crushed it, following a series of drone and air strikes against its stronghold in Nangarhar, which started in 2015 and were continuing still in April 2017. Indeed Gen. Nicholson, head of the ‘Resolute Support’ NATO mission, has gone as far as implicitly saying that the ‘defeat’ of ISIS is the only real success of the mission so far.

Yet, in reality the battering taken by ISIS in Nangarhar has so far not prevented it from retaining control of what matters to it, the mines from where it raises funds. Until the recent ‘superbomb’ strike, ISIS’ safe havens in various parts of Afghanistan had been left untouched since the destruction of one of them in February 2015 in Helmand. The superbomb released on 13 April destroyed a logistics depot in Nangarhar, inflicting also serious casualties. It is likely however to be a ‘one off’, as it can only be used in remote areas with no civilian population around.

Undoubtedly the original version of ISIS that arrived to Afghanistan in early 2015 has demonstrated itself not to be viable :- too ideologically rigid to adapt to the Afghan political and social environment. All it could do was attract hardliners from the various jihadist organisations already active in the region, Afghan Taliban and Pakistani TTP, first and foremost. That was useful to establish a beachhead, but not to expand further. With the death of ISIS governor Hafiz Sayed, ISIS appears to have taken a more pragmatic approach in Afghanistan, offering more attractive deals to those local communities disgruntled with both the Afghan government and the Taliban. 

That has allowed ISIS to establish relatively large safe havens not just in Nangarhar and in Badakhshan, but also in Kunar, Zabul and Jowzjan in the north. In Kunar, ISIS is pushing Al-Qaida out of its old strongholds, which even the US army was not able to take. From there it hopes to prepare militarily for a forthcoming large campaign of conquest. 
It will take more than the occasional superbomb to stop them!

The Taliban’s mess

As of spring 2017 ISIS is still only 10% the size of the Afghan Taliban, but the latter are more disunited internally than ever. Supreme Leader Haibatullah is embattled and faces a serious challenge to his leadership. He is seen by most Taliban as ineffective, who is not able to lead, whether militarily or politically. He stays in power only thanks to Pakistani and Iranian support. The three rising stars among the Taliban are Serajuddin Haqqani, who is now the strongman of the Quetta Shura, despite being nominally Haibatullah’s deputy; Obeidullah Ishaqzai, the cousin of Haibatullah’s predecessor Akhtar Mansur (killed in a US drone strike in May 2016), who is trying to take Haibatullah’s place, and Qari Baryal, who has set up camp in north-eastern Afghanistan, from where he is expanding his influence southwards and westwards. None of these three rising stars like each other very much, nor they are in good terms with Haibatullah. Such divisions have seriously affected the military effort of the Taliban. In fact, only Serajuddin has been fully committed, while the others are more interested and engaged in endless internal power struggles, rather than in winning the war.

Is reconciliation going to happen?

All of that of course, is good luck for the Afghan government, which is disinclined to reconcile with the Taliban as an organisation. There are many considerations advising against that. By agreeing to accept Haibatullah, or whoever claims to be the Taliban’s leader as an interlocutor, Kabul would strengthen his position. That is only going to be good if the chances of an agreement were high. The problem is that Kabul thinks that some of the Taliban’s demands might be too onerous to handle, in particular anything regarding the constitution and the “Islamisation” of the system of government. 

Then the Pakistani authorities have their own demands, which would be even more onerous for the Afghan government, as they would imply a degree of control over Afghan foreign policy. In particular the influence of India would have to be dramatically curtailed. That would leave an executive dominated by Pakistani and Saudi clients, with little counter-balance from the Indian side. In the Pakistani vision, only the Iranians, with whom they strive to maintain reasonable relations, would be allowed to a have a significant influence in Kabul, and perhaps the Russians, whose relations with Pakistan have been warming recently.

The problem for Washington is that in President Obama’s strategy: reconciliation with the Taliban was the ticket out of Afghanistan, as it was accepted that the war could not be won within acceptable parameters of time and cost. The first signal that the US were losing interest in reconciliation, dates back to May 2016, when they killed Akhtar Mansur, who was the only Taliban leader who could have delivered that. Then in April 2017 the Americans refused to attend a Russian-sponsored meeting to discuss reconciliation, in Moscow. 

The Americans, and particularly the military, do not want to pursue reconciliation anymore (but at the same time do not want somebody else to take the lead in that either). The Chinese government has been trying to take a lead role in reconciliation too, and has now aligned with the Russian effort. The Russians and the Chinese have active contacts with the Taliban and in particular with Haibatullah. Their calculus is that they need to strengthen him in order to have a counterpart who can deliver reconciliation, or at least deliver some co-operation on themes which are dear to both Moscow and Beijing:- the threat to Central Asian stability, by groups linked to ISIS and Al-Qaida. The Americans and NATO are instead irritated by what they consider to be a Russian attempt to ‘create trouble’ in Afghanistan. 

If general Russian-American relations continue to deteriorate so fast, this could turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy: the Russians might use their assets in Afghanistan to destabilise what they perceive to be a pro-US and pro-Saudi government. They could easily be joined by the Iranians, who also figure high in the Trump Administration’s list of potential targets. 

The Iranians are much better positioned than the Russians to create trouble in Afghanistan, even if they have been quiet for the last 18 months. And then not only the prospect of the Americans finally getting out of Afghanistan would evaporate, but they might be inclined to reinforce and send in more men again.

Stalemate or slow erosion?

Although the Afghan government has been scraping through in 2015 and 2016, its control over the rural areas, never strong, has eroded further. Several key highways are now very exposed and regularly threatened, as are some important cities. Kabul has to hope that the Taliban will not get their act together and launch co-ordinated offensives against Afghan government positions. 

The Afghan government is now finally trying to figure out how it can reform the Afghan security forces and make them more effective. It has asked for US help in combating widespread corruption, resulting in hundreds of dismissals and in the blocking of the salaries of 30,000 ‘ghost soldiers’ whose salaries were being pocketed by the officers! It has plans to double the size of its ‘special forces’, the only units that have demonstrated the ability to go on the offensive against the enemy, and is trying to obtain additional NATO help in training them. There is already a ‘Resolute Support’ request for 5,000 additional troops, which is likely to be at least, in part accepted, in Washington and perhaps by some European countries. 

However, stamping out corruption within the security forces is going to be difficult given the wider political environment, which is fundamentally built on corrupt deals. The whole political settlement is based on this. At the same time big political manoeuvres are going on to reshape the ruling coalition, by the time of the next presidential elections in 2019. President Ghani wants to enlarge his coalition to incorporate the two main parties in the country (both of which are branches of the Muslim Brotherhood), until now divided by a bitter rivalry. The deal will be funded by Saudi money, allowing (perhaps) the reduction of the level of corrupt deal making in Kabul. The Saudis, who are after all Wahhabis, not particularly sympathetic to the Muslim Brothers, also offer Ghani some guarantee that the newly reconciled ‘Brothers’ would not sooner or later play some trick on Ghani and overthrow him. The new coalition would be dependent on long-term Saudi financial support, but will this be enough to prevent an upset? Not all the Afghan Muslim Brothers accept the alleged reconciliation between the two rival branches, and there are rumours that the Iranians and the Indians are offering support to those who oppose it.

The Afghan political scene is therefore as fluid as ever. The economy at the same time is in full recession. Ghani needs to cover that base too, if he wants his re-election plan to work. His hope seems to be to involve the Chinese through a massive investment plan. The Chinese initially warmed to that idea in 2014 and 2015, but seem now to have cooled down, having more fully realised the immensity of all the challenges that will have to be confronted, from violence, terrorism, corruption and logistics.