If ISIS swallows the Taliban, will Afghanistan become a caliphate?

While NATO sees no danger of Islamic State (ISIS) gaining a strong enough foothold in Afghanistan to represent a serious threat to regional security, Russia is concerned that the jihadist organization is growing in strength and may soon supplant the Taliban – and Moscow fears that ISIS has ultimate plans to make Central Asia part of its caliphate.
talib troika
Taliban militants stand with their weapons, Nov. 4, 2010 in Herat, Afghanistan. Source:Getty Images

Russia and the West diverge in their assessments of whether Islamic State (ISIS) is expanding geographically and constitutes a disaster waiting to happen in Afghanistan. Lack of understanding and cooperation on the ground might once again, as in Syria, only be a prelude to a rough awakening to the actual scale of the threat.

In the previous week NATO has pledged to maintain the 12,000-strong contingent of its troops and instructors throughout 2016 as part of its Resolute Support mission. Yet the alliance has dismissed the assumption that ISIS could be in a position to dismember the Taliban, radicalize the local tribes, and turn it into a province of the caliphate.

This does not resonate with articles in the British newspapers The Times and The Guardian this week describing in detail the scale of state-building and strategic ambitions of ISIS. It is also not compatible with the opinion of General Stanley McChrystal (retired), who helped destroy ISIS’s predecessor organization (ISI) in Iraq from 2006 to 2008. “If the West sees ISIS as an almost stereotypical band of psychopathic killers,” he has said, “we risk dramatically underestimating them.”

Moscow views recent developments in Afghanistan in an alarming context. Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov has revealed that, according to intelligence sources, ISIS has “established its presence in 25 out of 34 Afghan provinces.” According to UN experts’ estimates, the numbers of ISIS fighters in the four districts south of Jalalabad total between 1,200 and 1,600. Some are elite fighters. This apart, Taliban militants are also defecting to ISIS. 

Should Moscow look well ahead and start mapping out contingency plans? Talking to Troika Report, Alexander Ignatenko, president of the Moscow-based Institute of Religion and Politics, assessed the level of the security threat to Russia and its allies posed by the gradual advancement of ISIS into the non-Arab region.

“The expansion of ISIS in the region has gone along proven routes, with its sponsors simply buying out whole units of Al-Qaeda or other extremist groups in a particular country. An explicit example is Boko Haram (in Nigeria): Originally this organization had no relations with ISIS, but then it allowed itself to be bought, swore allegiance to ISIS, and furthermore, became the nucleus of what is called the ‘Islamic State’s vilayet of Western Africa’.”

– Are we witnessing the implementation of the ISIS grand project of a caliphate stretching from Morocco to Central Asia?

“Not exactly. There is a transparent geopolitical and economic interest for ISIS’s sponsor – and this is Qatar – when it comes to Afghanistan: to prevent the construction of a gas pipeline known as TAPI. The idea of TAPI is to supply gas from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan and India.

“Moreover, this is only part of the long-term strategy. Once Afghanistan falls under the rule of ISIS, Qatar will proceed further, to the northern border of the Muslim-populated China's Xinjiang Province. The goal is to have a stronghold to prevent the coming onstream of another major infrastructure project, the Power of Siberia pipeline, designed to supply Russian natural gas to China.”

What Ignatenko is basically saying amounts to the following uncomfortable truth: Qatar, for the purpose of maintaining its present dominant position on the global market of liquefied natural gas (LNG), is ready to eliminate alternative suppliers by using Islamic State militants either as an instrument of regime change or, if this tactic fails, as a potent irritant that will create regional instability and, consequently, raise the risks of any investment enterprises.

– An opinion has been floated that Russia should not get involved in the Afghanistan quagmire. Yet, Russia is currently fighting ISIS in Syria, so why not confront it on the ground much closer to Central Asia, which is rightly considered Russia’s ”soft underbelly”?

“Those who claim that the Taliban would remain a closed Pashtun-centered movement and would never expand northward are making a mistake. The Taliban would definitely move into Central Asia either as an affiliate of Islamic State or as part of an alliance of Islamist radicals already in existence in this part of the world, like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), the anti-China East Turkistan Islamic Movement, etc.”

– Is this threat being neglected or underestimated in Moscow?

“It is my understanding that the Russian political and military leadership is getting ready for such a scenario. Certain pre-emptive measures are being taken within the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Both organizations regularly hold military exercises with the aim of confronting the threat of terrorism.” 

While acknowledging the threat of ISIS in Afghanistan, Russia’s top officials are not in a hurry to get involved. Moscow will “thoughtfully” assess requests from the government in Kabul for arms supplies, said Zamir Kabulov, Russian presidential special envoy for Afghanistan. At the same time, Russian Permanent Representative to NATO Alexander Grushko pointed out that in 12 years the 140,000-strong NATO contingent in Afghanistan has failed to eliminate the internal security threats. As long NATO considers Afghanistan its zone of strategic interest, it is unlikely that Russia would step in.

Yet, the security environment here is volatile. The gearing up of internal feuds among local radicals has been evidenced lately by the as-yet unconfirmed death of the Taliban’s elected leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour, who was reportedly targeted by militants of an ISIS-led breakaway cell. It appears likely, since Mullah Mansour supported the Afghan-focused agenda and was reluctant to accept the expansionist drive of Islamic State.

This is only proof that the internal strife in the Taliban is heating up. Should the Taliban split and end up being reformatted into an expansionist force targeting neighboring countries, it will become part of a global issue. The consolidation and internationalization of terrorist groupings all along the Arc of Instability will require a concerted response by Russia and its allies.

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