NATO’s combat mission formally ended in Afghanistan with Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) taking over full responsibility for security in the country at the start of 2015. The end of NATO’s combat mission is considered a “victory” by Taliban officials. In fact, the Afghan war seems far from over. The year 2014 became the bloodiest period of the war in Afghanistan — the longest in American history — since the 2001 US-led NATO invasion. More than 5,000 Afghan security forces have been killed in 2014 alone, more than the coalition deaths — approximately 3,500, including US fatalities — during the 13 years of war, according to Afghan government officials.
Around 13,000 NATO, mainly American, troops remain in Afghanistan under the new NATO mission called the Resolute Support Mission (RSM). The aim of RSM is to train, advise and assist the Afghan National Security Forces. However, US President Barack Obama has authorized the continuation of air and ground operations to some extent. Thus, the US troops may conduct counterterrorism operations when military interference is inevitable by going beyond the advisory and training role of the new NATO mission.
ISIL presence in Afghanistan
In the last few weeks it has been reported that hundreds of Taliban militants laid down their weapons and surrendered to first Vice President Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum in the northern Jawzjan province. The Afghan authorities welcomed this move and Vice President Dostum said it would lead to nationwide peace and stability. Dostum also called on other Taliban militants to join the peace process, which has been going on for some time, but a concrete outcome has not yet been achieved.
Moreover, the Taliban seems to evaluate the recent developments in Afghanistan, in particular the NATO withdrawal, as an opportunity to gain ground. There are several American security experts that suggested an increase in the number of troops kept in Afghanistan at the start of this year. Even Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has expressed concerns about the possible appearance of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters in Afghanistan and suggested that the US re-examine the current troop withdrawal timeline. Apparently no one wants another Iraq; however, the seriousness of President Ghani’s concern was underrated by Resolute Support Mission (RSM) Commander Gen. John Campbell, who said: “This is not Iraq. I don’t see ISIL coming into Afghanistan like they did into Iraq. The Afghan Security Forces would not allow that.”
Gen. Campbell could not be more mistaken about ISIL. As a matter of fact, there are several reasons to take precautions, contrary to what he believes. Last September, a faction of Hezb-e-Islami led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar said they were considering joining the ISIL militants. Some factions of both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban have pledged allegiance to ISIL’s self-proclaimed caliphate, according to some reports. Just a week ago, a senior Afghan army general told Al Jazeera that ISIL has been active in Afghanistan and a source from the Ministry of the Interior confirmed ISIL’s existence in Afghanistan. There are also reports coming from different provinces in Afghanistan that there are people recruiting and training fighters in the name of ISIL. This could, however, be the result of internal conflicts within the leadership of the Taliban, and ISIL might not pose an imminent danger, yet. However, ISIL’s quick march through Iraq and Syria in the last year is alarming enough.
ISIL presence in Central Asia
One of the main active terrorist groups in the Islamic, former Soviet Central Asian countries is the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which announced its support for ISIL in the summer of 2014. An online statement by IMU leader Usman Gazi noted, “Hereby, on behalf of all the members of our movement, in line with our sacred duties, I declare that we are in the same ranks with the Islamic State [ISIL] in this continued war between Islam and [non-Muslims].” The IMU, listed as a terrorist organization by the US, was established in 1991 to topple Uzbek President Islam Karimov and his regime. They had close ties to al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan until the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. They have remained active in Uzbekistan since the 9/11 attacks and have carried out attacks within the country from time to time.
According to a recent report titled “Syria Calling: Radicalization in Central Asia” published by the International Crisis Group (ICG), “Growing numbers of Central Asian citizens, male and female, are traveling to the Middle East to fight or otherwise support the Islamic State.” All five Central Asian countries (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) are located in a fragile region neighboring key countries like Afghanistan, Iran, Russia and China. The economic and social problems, along with the authoritarian regimes, are the facts of life in these countries since they have become independent. State pressure on religious freedom in the region has been problematic and became one of the reasons for radicalization — making it easier for ISIL to attract militants, jihadists and sympathizers from regional countries.
Even if ISIL does not pose an immediate threat to Central Asian countries, returning militants could be a danger and should be prepared for. Countries like Russia and China that are alarmed by this potential have already advised Central Asian states to address the issue of radicalization. The security forces of Central Asian countries are not prepared to fight such militant groups and their state policies aimed at freedom of religion need to be reformed in order to combat radicalization generally.
Currently, ISIL does not seem to be operating in Afghanistan or Central Asian countries; yet, all necessary measures should be taken by the regional governments to take away the hope of ISIL surviving in the region. Even a small group could pull the trigger to start an insurgency on behalf of ISIL and destabilize the region. It is too risky, especially for Afghanistan, to have another terrorist group on its land while still dealing with the Taliban.
Salih Doğan is a research fellow at the Turkey Institute, a Ph.D. candidate at Keele University and a research assistant at Turgut Özal University.
This article first appeared in Today’s Zaman, a leading Turkish daily. Click here to go to the original.