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Marginalized Afghan Insurgents Drawn to Islamic State


An image made from a video released by the Islamic State (IS) on January 27 purportedly showing Hafiz Said Khan, center, head of IS in Pakistan and Afghanistan, at an undisclosed location along the border.

Graeme Smith, an author and analyst for the International Crisis Group in Afghanistan, is skeptical about the Islamic State (IS) militant group becoming a magnet for attracting insurgents in Afghanistan. He discusses how the hardline Islamist group ― which now controls parts of Iraq and Syria ― has nevertheless emerged as an attractive brand for disgruntled Taliban commanders.

RFE/RL: Does the Islamic State militant group really exist in Afghanistan?

Graeme Smith: Well, there is a long history in Afghanistan of different armed groups taking different sides depending on who is giving them guns and money. Those changes could sometimes happen very quickly, and I think you are starting to see that again with some of the Taliban groups. Especially as they start to wonder whether Mullah Omar is actually alive and if there is any strong leadership coming from the Rahbari Shura [the leadership council of the Taliban].

If you are a small commander and you have lost that connection with Quetta, now you can go to Da'ish [the Arabic term for IS militants in Iraq and Syria] and say, "Hey, give me support, I will help you, I will fight on your side." It is not clear to me what kind of benefit exists for Da'ish; I cannot see a strong motivation, but for those individual commanders the motivation is clear because IS is a strong brand and you can regain some of your prestige.

RFE/RL: IS is a predominantly Arab movement and operates outside of Afghanistan. What do you think it expects from operating inside the country?

Smith: It's not clear to me what kind of benefit exists for Da'ish in setting up fronts in southern Afghanistan, for example. I can't really see the motivation, but certainly for individual commanders the motivation is clear: Da'ish is a strong brand. You can regain your prestige, some of your notoriety. And some of them appear to be getting money, as well. It is not just symbolic; they are getting material support for small groups. So far, it's a fairly new phenomenon ― we're talking about a few hundred here, a few hundred there. But there are fairly small bands of gunmen in fairly remote places, and you just need to monitor this to see whether it becomes a more serious movement.

Graeme Smith
Graeme Smith

RFE/RL: What are the chances that IS will become a really strong group in Afghanistan, and how do you see their relations with the Taliban?

Smith: I'm a little skeptical about whether Da'ish can actually become a very serious cause in Afghanistan because, as you remember, the Taliban are actually very ambitious. The Taliban want to capture large parts of Afghanistan. But many parts of Afghanistan include Shi’a, such as the [central region of] Hazarajat, which the Taliban also want to capture. They know they cannot be a purely Sunni movement and eliminate all of the Shi'a. I mean, even in Kandahar city, there's a Shi'ite neighborhood and, so far, that Shi'ite neighborhood in Kandahar city has not had the same kind of Sunni-versus-Shi'a clashes that you've seen already in Quetta [a nearby city in southwestern Pakistan], for example.

And so that suggests to me that the main insurgency is not as sectarian as Da'ish. This would be a major point of contention, a point of argument, between Da'ish and the Taliban. And you're already starting to see some gunfights and battles between Da'ish and Taliban groups in southern Afghanistan. Part of that is going to be for control of drug-smuggling routes, because they treat each other as competitors.

They are also competitors for support from private donors in the Gulf. These two movements both claim to represent a better version of Islam, and they want foreign donors to give money and support, and the Taliban are probably very worried that Da'ish is getting all the attention and therefore getting more of the money. So yeah, I think the emergence of Da'ish is a problem for the Taliban.

RFE/RL: Which group do you think is more appealing for potential jihadists in Afghanistan: IS or the Taliban?

Smith: It is still unclear right now. These Da'ish groups are kind of small and fairly new, and so nobody knows precisely why an insurgent commander would choose to join Da'ish instead of the Taliban. One experience we have so far, for example, is with a small commander running a madrasah in Girdi Jungle, a former refugee camp in southwestern Pakistan. He is smuggling drugs in Baramcha, in southern Helmand, and he apparently decided to join Da'ish because he's Noorzai, from the Noorzai tribe, and he has a conflict with the Ishaqzai tribe.

He lost his position with the Taliban and needed another patron, another flag to fly, so he turned to Da'ish. And apparently this has been profitable for him. He seems to get some support from this and has gained some prominence smuggling drugs, so that seems to have given him some advantage. We know of another guy, operating in the Sangin district of Helmand Province, who's flying the Da'ish flag right now, and the understanding is that he had actually been kicked out of the Taliban maybe two years ago. And so, for him, this might represent an attempt to come back, an attempt to regain some prominence.

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