Continued Violence In Afghanistan Could Spill Over Into The Neighbouring Countries

Continued Violence In Afghanistan Could Spill Over Into The Neighbouring Countries
In July of this year the Russian government informed the Taliban regime in Kabul that there were more than 6000 Daesh fighters now operating in Afghanistan. The Taliban reacted with a simple denial that displayed a deep sense of complacency on their part.

The Russian government told the Taliban regime that the number of ISIS fighters have gradually increased since Taliban takeover of Kabul in August 2021 as a number of disgruntled Taliban have quit their mother organization and joined the ISIS. The Afghan Taliban simply rejected this information as untrue and told the Russian government that ISIS had a much smaller number of fighters present in Afghanistan and their activities were simply restricted to smaller pockets in Eastern Afghanistan. Russians were not the only regional government worried about growing ISIS footprint in Afghanistan. The Pakistani and Iranian governments have also conveyed their unease to the Afghan Taliban over the growing ISIS presence in Afghanistan. Pakistani government has particularly conveyed its concern to Taliban regime after a number terror attacks in Pakistani cities bordering Afghanistan. While the Pakistan government has remained secretive in its diplomacy with the Taliban, the Russian government has gone public with their concerns.

Experts in Islamabad say that it is only a matter of time that Daesh-K gets emboldened enough to expand its target areas and reach Afghanistan's larger neighborhood. ISIS is already claiming a number of attacks in Taliban’s neighboring countries. Daesh-K recently claimed that it carried out a cross-border attack against an Uzbek military base. The group has also been responsible for attacks against Pakistan, including a mosque bombing in Peshawar. The stabbings at the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad in July this year by an Uzbek national contribute to Tehran’s fears. Pakistan is particularly concerned about revival of sectarian violence in its border towns and cities as ISIS prime targets have been Shia and non-Muslims inside Pakistan. Number of Shia targets were attacked in Pakistani cities and towns bordering Afghanistan in what were later claimed by ISIS to be their handiwork.

Experts say that Taliban are expected to benefit greatly from this situation as most of the regional countries including China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan are now expressing greater willingness to cooperate with the Taliban regime in view of their growing perception that ISIS poses a grave threat to regional security. Experts also hold that Iranians have also started to view ISIS as much more lethal than Taliban threat to Iranian interests in the region. While Taliban stand to gain from these new regional perceptions, it is losing fast domestically with more and more of its radicalized local cadre joining ISIS ranks after getting alienated from Taliban leadership seeking reconciliation with foreign governments. Taliban government representatives recently held talks with American CIA’s senior officials in Doha and this meeting was widely reported in the local media.

“There is a growing possibility that Taliban will cooperate with Americans, EU and other regional countries but the problem is that Taliban will find it hard to explain this cooperation to their fighters, whose fourth generation is in the business of fighting foreign infidels,” said a Islamabad based expert.

A key problem is that Afghan Taliban don’t have the financial capacity to create a modern security structure aimed at maintaining internal peace. “The west, so far, has completely ruled out the possibility of security cooperation with Afghan Taliban, ” said a Pakistani expert associated with the Government of Pakistan.

Taliban have made a political move to attract the support of their opponents in the effort to create a security structure by announcing a general amnesty. The Afghan Taliban are facing two insurgencies: one in eastern part of the country and second in the northern part of the country directed towards destabilizing the Taliban government in Kabul. In eastern Afghanistan the Taliban forces have curbed the activities of ISIS-K to some extent, however experts are pointing out the resurgence of the group and radicals among Taliban joining hands with ISIS-K on account of former’s growing international connections. In northern Afghanistan, Taliban “fight affiliates of the former army, police and intelligence services whom they defeated in August 2021”. Observers say that Taliban’s brutal campaign against IS-K has greatly reduced the group's capacity in eastern part of the country, according to a recent report of International Crisis Group, “but the group has begun to adjust, altering its area of operations and shifting its tactics”.

For the past two years Pakistani military leaders have held extensive negotiations with regional partners over the possibility of playing a central role in preventing the rise of ISIS in Afghanistan—a development which is posing a severe threat to Pakistan’s own security as well. Russians and Iranians have regularly interacted with Pakistani military leaders during the past two years. Pakistan's political and military elites, on account of the lessons learnt because of the country's three-decade-old involvement in Afghanistan, are  averse to any direct military intervention in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. However, with each passing day the possibility of Pakistan’s political advice and intelligence involvement  in Afghan’s internal affairs is rising.

In recent years, the intelligence chiefs of six regional states including Russia, Iran, China and three Central Asian countries held meetings in Islamabad. In these meetings it was decided that the regional countries will provide timely intelligence information to the Afghan Taliban so that they could directly handle the ISIS threat. The regional security situation is pushing Pakistan and Afghan Taliban towards a closer security cooperation, especially to deal with the threat of ISIS. The problems associated with the revival of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, poses a major obstacle in the way of this cooperation. In the past TTP has cooperated with ISIS-K. The fear of TTP-ISIS-K alliance looms large in any future security scenario for Pakistan.

Pakistan's policymakers will have to quell internal instability to handle this clear and present danger.

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad.