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The appearance of Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS or IS) in what it calls ‘Khorasan’ (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Central Asia and Iran) was first reported in the late summer of 2014. Initially dismissed as propaganda by most observers and official sources – like ISAF and members of its successor mission, Operation Resolute Support – these attitudes have since changed as the understanding of the group has evolved.
By early 2015, Afghan government officials were showcasing the ‘IS threat’ in Afghanistan as yet another key reason for the US not to leave Afghanistan at the end of 2016. There was some evidence of exaggeration by authorities, which was reflected in Western media reporting, but over time the evidence suggesting that some sort of Daesh group had established itself in Afghanistan became more and more compelling. Understanding the exact scale and nature of this threat has become a central concern of authorities not only in Afghanistan and the West, but also in China, Iran, Pakistan and other countries in Central Asia.
In order to understand the nature of this group, RUSI has recently launched a project on Daesh in ‘Khorasan’, funded by the Smith Richardson Foundation. Drawing on interviews with Daesh members, village elders, members of other insurgent organisations in the area – mainly Taliban and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) – and local-level government officials, the project has already helped to create a much more precise and nuanced picture of Daesh’s presence in Afghanistan and Khorasan.
From a purely quantitative point of view, different sources (Daesh cadres themselves, Afghan security sources, Pakistani security sources and Iranian Pasdaran sources) seem to agree that there are around 7,000–8,500 Daesh members based on Afghan soil and 2,000–3,000 based in Pakistan. These figures are inclusive of all active Daesh members, both fighters and support elements.
In the second half of 2014 and during the first months of 2015, Daesh groups were popping up all over Afghanistan as a result of commanders of the Taliban, Hizb-i Islami and other armed groups switching sides. Then, from spring 2015, a process of consolidation seems to have taken place, with Daesh trying to establish strong bases in carefully selected locations – specifically in easily defendable, mountainous areas like Khogyani and Mohmand Dara in the eastern province of Nangarhar, or Kajaki in Helmand province. Well-armed Daesh groups would flock to these areas and establish strong defences.
This trend of former Taliban members aligning themselves with Daesh was probably the result of the increasingly violent conflict between Daesh and the Afghan Taliban. Initially the relationship between them was peaceful. In the summer and autumn of 2014, Daesh emissaries convinced the Taliban to allow Daesh to establish itself in the region as yet another jihadist organisation that could collaborate and share ‘jihad space’ alongside various other Pakistani, Central Asian and Middle Eastern groups already active in Afghanistan. However, by the end of 2014 it had become clear that Daesh was actively trying to attract Taliban commanders to its side, and was having some success. Tensions grew and in February 2015 armed clashes erupted between the two groups in Helmand, before spreading rapidly around the country.
It seems that the Daesh leadership did not intend to start a war with the Taliban at that stage. The Daesh foothold in Afghanistan and Pakistan was precarious compared to the Taliban’s. The most violent conflict flared up in Nangarhar from June 2015 onwards and was driven by tribal rivalries and competition among Taliban commanders, not by a strategic plan conceived by the Daesh leadership. Daesh emerged tactically victorious from the first round of fighting and for the first time brought under its control some relatively large chunks of territory in the Shinwari and Mohmand Dara areas of the province. However, this open war with the Taliban meant that all of the Daesh-affiliated groups in Afghanistan – and to some extent even in Pakistan – came under heavy pressure from the Taliban. The Nangarhar victory was offset by the destruction of the other main Daesh base, in Kajaki (Helmand), and by the destruction of several Daesh groups in western Afghanistan, where the Taliban and the Iranian Pasdaran had co-operated to fight against Daesh, which was seen at the time as a common enemy.
Daesh is now on the defensive throughout Afghanistan and even in Pakistan, where the TTP seems to be preparing an attack against them. This is likely to be slowing the recruitment efforts of Daesh, even if abundant funding and the comparatively generous conditions offered to members still amount to an attractive package for many potential recruits. Even in Nangarhar, where Daesh has seen most success, the group seems to be losing ground. The Taliban, revitalised in early January 2016 by a sudden injection of funds, have been pushing Daesh back from some of the areas they gained last summer. Although these areas are unlikely to be strategically important to Daesh’s plans, its image as an invincible organisation will suffer if it continues to cede ground, thereby affecting recruitment. Moreover, sources within Daesh indicate that it has been coming under pressure from some of its donors to increase activities in Central Asia, using its well-developed contacts with Central Asian jihadist groups in northern Afghanistan. This is hardly compatible with the current Daesh strategy of entrenching itself in areas it can easily defend and supply.
Early findings for the new research project suggest that Daesh has established a foothold in Afghanistan and is still growing. However, its advance more closely resembles a hurdle race than a triumphant march. So far, Daesh has been mainly troubling the Taliban, but it is unlikely that it will remain focused on competing with other insurgent groups. In order to establish its jihadist credentials vis-à-vis donors and potential recruits, Daesh will have to increasingly target the Afghan government, and Russian, Iranian and Western interests. But does it have the ability to hurt these actors? For that, it will need capabilities that it has not yet demonstrated and not just ‘numbers’ of fighters. One of the main ambitions of the current research project is to understand the ‘quality’ of Daesh’s presence in Khorasan and thus to work out whether it is something substantially different from the Taliban.
Dr. Antonio Giustozzi is an Associate Fellow at RUSI