Islamic State opens account in Afghanistan

The Islamic State [IS] has claimed responsibility for the ghastly suicide bombing on Sunday in the eastern Afghanistan city of Jalalabad, killing at least 33 people and injuring more than 100. The Taliban have categorically denied any role.

Of course, it is difficult to be judgmental in such dire circumstances. No doubt, Taliban cadres can always wear new IS robes and this might well have begun happening, given the incipient trends toward splinter groups of Talibs breaking off now and then and swearing allegiance to the IS.

However, whether there are umbilical cords tying such elements to the IS Hqs in Iraq or not or instructions are being transmitted from Mosul to the Hindu Kush or whether terrorist elements are moonlighting in a spirit of motiveless malignity has become a moot point today.

The point is, the IS is an idea and if the idea is arresting the minds of even a few militants in Afghanistan (or Pakistan) it becomes a terrifying prospect. The time for hair-splitting – whether the Afghan soil is fertile or not for the IS tree to grow – is gone.

Such mutations as could be happening within the Taliban are inevitable and the history of popular insurgencies is littered with such things.

However, in contrast with the clear-cut assessment by the Kabul government and many regional states (especially Russia and Iran) that the spectre of the IS has come to haunt Afghanistan, the United States and its allies have maintained an ambivalent stance.

This is only to be expected, because the Obama administration grapples with more than one compulsion working on it and has to navigate its way through with some dexterity. The main considerations are:

  • In political terms, the White House is wary that the IS’ rise in Afghanistan might become even more grist for the mill of President Barack Obama’s detractors and critics at home, as it highlights the colossal failure of the US-led war (which he’d on the other hand like to project differently as a success story and as presidential legacy.)
  • On the other hand, the IS provides the perfect alibi for the US to establish its military bases in Afghanistan (and to bring in NATO as well) on a long-term footing, which makes the hype of continued al-Qaeda / IS threat in Afghanistan a realtime political necessity.
  • But at the same time, the US will be chary of any suggestion that the IS’ rise is also to be attributed to the Afghan people’s resentment over the continued foreign occupation of their country.

Then, there is the big, tantalizing question which looms large today as to where exactly the US stands vis-a-vis the IS. Much remains a mystery to the uninitiated who see the paradigm in back and white terms as a straightforward war on terror, whereas, the unnoticed eddies are really more important here than the mainstream. Consider the following.

One, IS surged in Syria and Iraq as a result of the misguided policies pursued by the US and its regional allies. Simply put, in the frenzy to try to overthrow the Syrian regime and replace it with a pro-western set-up, the US and its allies ended up supporting extremist groups who later transformed as the IS.

Didn’t the U.S. know with all the intelligence assets at its command that its regional allies – Arab and non-Arab – were (and continue to be) involved in the dangerous business of covertly supporting extremist groups? Of course, it did. If so, why did it look away and patiently mark time until the IS monster finally caught the world headlines by conquering Mosul?

Again, why Mosul? Everyone knows that Mosul region adjacent to Kirkuk, awash with the great oil fields, is the nerve centre or frontline of the “Iraq question”, where the viability of the country remaining a unified state with a Shi’ite majority (created a century ago by Imperial Britain on the debris of the Ottoman Empire to suit the geopolitical needs of that time) or should be dismembered like the former Yugoslavia.

Contradictions are galore when one looks closely at the US’ much-touted military campaign against the IS in Iraq since last year. To be sure, the US has conducted air strikes on the IS. But then, it has refused to tackle the IS on the ground.

To be sure, the US forces have returned to Iraq despite the popular Iraqi opinion heavily weighed against American troop presence. But then, the US military advisors are taking their own time to prepare the Iraqi armed forces to take the war into the IS camp.

To be sure, the folklore says that the hydra-headed IS monster with a billion-dollar holding and hidden sources of income cannot be vanquished easily. But then the ramshackle Iraqi militia with the support and guidance from Iran have shown in Tikrit that the IS mystique is probably no more than hyperbole that can be scattered.

To be sure, the IS continues to get supplies from outside. But then, the Iranians count the U.S. among the principal sources of supply of weapons for the IS.

To be sure, the U.S. could be airdropping weapons by mistake behind enemy lines. But then, Iran now is in possession of concrete evidence that the U.S. aircraft are literally unloading arms supplies at airports that are under the control of the IS.

Really? What is the conclusion to be drawn if there is an ounce of truth in the Iranian allegation (which has since been picked up by Russian official media)? It doesn’t need much ingenuity to figure out that the US is indulging in doublespeak — staging an elaborate pantomime with a hidden agenda that actually aims at somehow perpetuating an IS presence of some sort or the other on the Iraqi chessboard for some time to come. The US’ objective could be three-fold:

  • create an alibi to remain embedded militarily in a highly strategic region where rival powers – Russia, China and Iran – have staged a comeback and may threaten to overshadow the western presence;
  • create a permanent thorn in the flesh for Shi’ite Iran and a bulwark against Iran’s rising regional influence;
  • work on the IS incrementally through its various mentors in the region (who are US’ allies) and finesse it as a geopolitical tool for the furtherance of the US’ regional strategies in the Muslim countries.

Given the above complex scenario, the appearance of the IS in Afghanistan becomes a moment fraught with great poignancy.

We can agree that the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has no reason to lie during a nationally televised address when he says that the IS is responsible for the carnage in Jalalabad on Sunday. He probably spoke on the basis of Afghan intelligence. His army chief Sher Mohammad Karimi said at the same that terrorists are the common enemies of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Interestingly, the IS’s appearance in Afghanistan coincides with phenomenal shifts in regional politics. (See my article Pakistan, China, Iran and the remaking of regional security). Equally, there are nascent signs that the national unity government in Kabul is renewing its ties with Russia, here, and Iran, here, (which have been in a state of drift in the recent months.)

The US has every reason to feel nervous that a regional initiative may, finally, take shape that challenges Washington’s monopoly to be the arbiter of any Afghan settlement — especially with the warming up of Russian-Pakistani ties and the upcoming summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Ufa, Russia, where Pakistan’s admission as a full member of the regional body is expected to be formalized.

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