The growing geographic spread of ISIS has lately been part of the news chatter in tabloids and respected papers alike.
We know ISIS has tried to spread its propaganda to Pakistan and Afghanistan since late 2014 and proclaimed its leadership of that region in early January, with members of the Pakistani Taliban claiming loyalty to the group. One of ISIS's Afghan commanders who was in a recruitment video aimed at the region was killed at the end of January, and another was allegedly arrested by the Afghan Taliban.
However, police in Afghanistan's Ghazni province, where ISIS was reported to be fighting, recently denied the group had a presence there.
Nevertheless, many Afghan Government officials, Afghan analysts with links to Government, and some civil society activists I spoke to last year are set on making the case that ISIS is operating in Afghanistan. Their counterparts across the border in Pakistan seem to be less concerned, even if the link between the Pakistani Taliban and ISIS is ostensibly stronger.
Others however, remain sceptical, and the Taliban website has been suspiciously silent on the matter. Australia's Foreign Minister has been cautious about acknowledging an ISIS presence in Afghanistan (possibly because there is about as much evidence for its presence in Australia, considering the Sydney siege and two individuals arrested before they could strike), though the Australian Government continues to warn that ISIS may expand its operations to Afghanistan in the future.
The question is, why should we even bother looking for ISIS in Afghanistan?
Afghanistan is in enough trouble already, and for what it's worth it has had an 'Islamic state' for much longer than Syria or Iraq. After all, the Taliban officially goes by name Islamic Emirate, and has thus long laid claim to the 'Islamic state' brand. The fact that ISIS called itself the 'Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham' might actually be a nod of acknowledgment from one quasi-state to another that such an ambition is already established in Afghanistan.
Though much has been made of the similarities between ISIS and the Taliban, such as their focus on conquering territory, maintaining an army and governing structure (all trademarks of states), they are not the same.
The Afghan Taliban still draws the majority of its recruits from within Afghanistan's Pashtun tribal structure, though it is known to also collaborate with many other ethnic and terrorist groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. There have been suggestions of Arabic trainers and mentors in Afghanistan, but generally Afghans have not liked them. Sunni Muslims have long been a majority in Afghanistan (no underdog status as in Iraq) and any sectarian problems have been predominantly of an ethnic nature, involving the Shia Hazara minority group.
Rather than looking for ISIS, I worry more about Afghanistan's other problems, which provide ample space to breed more extremist and criminal groups, and should be addressed both by the Afghan Government and the international community.
The Afghan Taliban is losing command and control, and its self-financing structure has seen it morph more into a criminal group than an insurgency. A recent UN report argued that the Taliban was acting more like a 'godfather' than a 'government in waiting', something Gretchen Peterson argued in 2009 when she compared the Taliban to the Sopranos minus the chianti. The Taliban leadership has long denied fragmentation and emphasized its unwavering command and control. On the ground however, the story is different, and many Afghans resent the fact that some fighters no longer practice as their leadership preaches.
There is a lesson here for counter-terrorism as an answer to the problem of ISIS. Much of what the Taliban has become today can be linked to the 'kill and capture' policy of the US military, which not only alienated the local population but also eliminated a lot of older, mid-level commanders with allegiances to the old Taliban leadership and belief system. Forced to continuously refill their ranks, the Taliban fighters and commanders have become younger, many with a rather basic understanding of Islam and Taliban rules (such as the laheya).
Thus, the very counter-terrorism policy designed to defeat the Taliban – which recently was quietly reinstated – has made the group into the different beast we are now dealing with; one that is far less likely to be reconciled into the Afghan Government. This should cause us to pause and consider if similar counter-terrorism approaches elsewhere might not also backfire.
Another way to understand the appeal of groups such as the Taliban, or ISIS, is to recognise what I would call the enabling environment that breeds extremism.
In addition to rising poverty and unemployment in Afghanistan, high dowry prices have forced young men to delay marriage and seek work abroad, or even engage in crime or jihad to afford a wife. This creates frustration, so much so that the Taliban has tried to lower dowry prices in areas they control. ISIS's response to the same problem has been somewhat more 'creative'. Either young women are encouraged to volunteer to marry fighters or ISIS sanctions their rape, enslavement and forced marriage. The importance of this 'sexual conquest' or 'primitive gratification' in ISIS's strategy, and the attraction for many young men struggling to find their place in more modern societies, has been little analysed in trying to understand the group's universal appeal.
In many ways, what ISIS offers is what young marginalised men across the world, including in Afghanistan, seek: adventure, violence, power, sex and a sense of self and community.
If we analyse the appeal of extremists groups from this angle, then the international community needs to adjust its narrative of 'all is going well in Afghanistan' and ensure a longer-term development strategy. The Afghan Government needs to get serious about its reform agenda and address corruption within its ranks. Not an easy task, which is perhaps why some stick to the seemingly more straightforward promise of counter-terrorism, which in my opinion only fans the fire of groups like ISIS and the Taliban.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Balazs Gardi.