November 16, 2019
It is quite baffling to continually hear American military leaders say U.S. troops must remain in Afghanistan to ensure the country will never again be used as a terrorist launching pad given that it is already is. For, despite years of airstrikes and counter-terror operations, the local franchise known as the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) is – as I write this – using Afghanistan as a base for expanding its footprint across all the former Soviet republics in Central Asia.
On November 7, Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Alexander Bortnikov warned of the surging nexus in Afghanistan between the Islamic State and other terrorist groups and the threat it poses to all members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
“We have registered an enhanced activity of Daesh branches in Afghanistan, united as the so-called Wilayat Khorasan. The Jamaat Ansarullah and the Turkistan Islamic Party are closely connected to it. They aim to create a staging ground for expansion to the territory of the CIS,” Bortnikov said during a meeting with commonwealth counterparts in Tashkent.
Earlier this month, First Deputy Chief of the Russian Government Staff Sergei Prikhodko said that up to 10,000 Islamic State terrorists were operating in Afghanistan, mostly in its northern and eastern territories.
The Islamic State’s presence in Afghanistan began with a small foothold in Nangarhar Province around 2015 and since has gradually spread across the country and into the capital itself, according to the New York Times. And now recent terror attacks have indicated it is spreading into neighboring states.
On November 6, at least seventeen people were killed by alleged Islamic State fighters during an attack on the border between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The New York Times’ Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Najim Rahim aptly captured the potential significance of this development.
“The attack points to the resilience of the Islamic State and its longstanding aim to spread further into Central Asia from its enclave in Afghanistan,” the reporters claimed.
Meanwhile, the United States appears oblivious as evidenced by U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley during an interview aired on ABC on November 10.
“In order for that mission to be successful, the government of Afghanistan, the Afghan security forces, are going to have to be able to sustain their own internal security to prevent terrorists from using their territory to attack other countries, especially the United States,” Milley said. “That effort’s ongoing. It’s been ongoing for 18 consecutive years. I suspect it will be ongoing into the future for several more years.”
This is the type of logic that will keep the U.S. military in Afghanistan for perpetuity given the fact that after 18 years the so-called mission has made little progress towards these objectives.
The expansion has come amid peace talks with the Taliban – a period in which the U.S. gave the insurgents breathing space while the campaign against ISKP supposedly intensified. In fact, in September, the U.S. military dropped more bombs in Afghanistan than any other month since the end of 2010, according to Air Force data.
However, U.S. officials have conceded that there is little evidence that this has impacted ISKP. They also concede that foreign fighters are migrating from Syria to Afghanistan to plan attacks, another reason why the ISKP numbers are likely surging.
Former Australian foreign affairs official Connor Dilleen earlier this year made a cogent argument as to why IS fighters emanating from across Central Asia after leaving Syria might see Afghanistan as a welcome destination.
“Given that IS-K seeks to establish a new caliphate covering South and Central Asia, it’s also logical that it would recruit Central Asians for its Afghan operations, because they can be used to advance the group’s ambitions across the broader region,” Dilleen said in a piece for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in May.
To put this foreboding migration in perspective just consider that Central Asia, population 72 million, provided the same number of foreign fighters for the Islamic State as Western Europe with its population of 400 million, according to the U.S. Institute of Peace.
The peace talks themselves are no panacea to the conflict overall or IKSP expansion plans. One problem is thinking that the Taliban and the Islamic State are truly mortal enemies. In fact, the U.S. Congressional Research Service (CSR) in a report released earlier in November said American officials are worried that Taliban fighters are going to swell the ranks of ISKP with or without a deal.
“Some [U.S. officials] raise the prospect of Taliban hardliners defecting to ISKP in the event that Taliban leaders agree to a political settlement or to a continued U.S. counterterrorism presence,” the report said.
There is one provocative question that could be asked vis-a-vis U.S. motives. Does the United States really care if ISKP expands its footprint across the CIS and threaten Russia’s southern flank?
Beginning in the 1970s the United States and Saudi Arabia partnered in a project to establish what Carter administration national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski called the “Arc of Islam.” The goal was to foment Islamic extremist uprisings within the Soviet satellite republics, a mission that even included the mass distribution of Korans.
Brzezinski never felt a moment of regret that the anti-Soviet jihad he helped fuel beget terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the Islamic State. Hence, if ISKP does eventually destabilize some CIS member states and causes more security problems for Moscow, it is easy to imagine the sinister Brzezinski smiling from the grave.