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The Centre of Gravity of militancy shifts to Afghanistan

Brig. (Retd.) V. Mahalingam is a security affairs analyst.
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  • May 27, 2015

    The Taliban’s Spring Offensive code named ‘Azm’, which commenced on 24 April 2015 in the Northern Province of Kunduz, has led to the death of scores of civilians, soldiers and militants. According to the Spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Kabul,11. more than 100,000 civilians have been displaced due to the fighting and are now in desperate need of assistance. Provincial Governor Mohammad Omer Safi has stated that bodies of 18 foreigners from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey and Chechnya had been retrieved from the battlefield. Safi went on to add that the foreign fighters provided technical and financial support to the Taliban which latter, he believes, are fresh graduates from madrassas in Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan with little battlefield experience. And Gen. Zelmai Oryakhail, the province's police chief, believes that the Taliban have taken their offensive to most regions of the country including Paktia province in the east near the Pakistan border.

    Afghan officials and observers see the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) as being behind the fierce battles and increased violence in the provinces of Zabul, Baghlan, Kunduz, Badakhshan, Takhar, Faryab, Jowzjan and Badghis; the last six of these provinces border Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

    The Afghan Taliban sheltered IMU members in the late 1990s. After the regime's fall in 2001, IMU fighters moved into Pakistan's northwestern tribal areas, where they fused with the Al Qaeda as well as with Pakistani and Afghan factions of the Taliban. The Pakistani military operation Zarb-e-Azb, which began last June, forced the IMU to shift base from North Waziristan back to Afghanistan.

    IMU has all along been trying to establish a foothold in northern Afghanistan by connecting with the Taliban and radicalising the region's Uzbek, Tajik and Turkmen communities. IMU is one of the most powerful groups known to have established their safe havens in the Fergana Valley.

    Ahmed Rashid, who has been following the IMU since its emergence in the 1990s, says that the current escalation in northern Afghanistan has been prompted by IMU efforts to rebuild secure bases before an expected peace deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government.22 Establishing bases and areas of control in Northern Afghanistan would allow them to inch forward and set up similar bases and hideouts across the border in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan. However, the possibility of a peace deal between the Taliban and the Afghan Government seems to be remote. This assessment is in sync with the views of Igor Rotar, who states:

    “The situation with radical Islam in the Fergana Valley is likely to worsen when NATO and US forces withdraw from Afghanistan after 2014. At that point, the Central Asian militants, who fought in Afghanistan, are likely to return home to pursue a new agenda. The IMU wants to eliminate Christians and Jews and establish a worldwide Islamic caliphate (see the IMU website, The destabilization of the Fergana Valley is a good start for the export of Islamic revolution. Increased terrorist activities in the valley could cause destabilization in the Central Asian region and present a danger to Russia, where, the IMU believes, twenty million Muslims live.”33

    Hekmatullah Azamy, a researcher at the Kabul-based Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies, states that the IMU has in recent years become an umbrella organization for Jundallah, Junad al-Khalifa, Jamaat Ansarullah and the Islamic Jihad Union.44 All these groups support the IMU’s goal of destabilizing Central Asian governments and eventually replacing them with an Islamic regime.

    IMU fighters now operating in Afghanistan are estimated to number between five and seven thousand. They have gained considerable influence in the provinces of Badakhshan, Takhar, Faryab, Zabul, Baghlan, Kunduz, Jozjan and Baghdis. With Taliban support, the IMU is developing bases in these areas to conduct operations in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan. The Taliban have mobilized about 15,000 fighters in the north and are jointly carrying-out targeted operations in these areas. They already control most of Afghan territory. The summer offensive is putting immense pressure on the Afghan National Army.

    General Mirza Aslam Beg, former Chief of the Pakistan Army, sees the situation thus:

    “And now as the occupation forces draw-down is coming to an end, the Taliban have launched the ‘Spring Offensive’ because the Americans and their proxy government at Kabul are once again trying to deny power sharing to the Taliban – the winners. The grim battle for power thus has begun.

    “The Taliban of Afghanistan are fighting for the freedom of their homeland for the last thirty-five years and have defeated the mightiest of the mighty- a feat which remains un-paralleled in the contemporary history of warfare. Whereas our Prime Minister, on 12 May at Kabul, declared that “Afghan Taliban spring offensive and attacks will be construed as terrorist acts and we condemn such attacks.” He better seek guidance on this matter from the parliament, as he did in case of Saudi-Yemeni conflict. The DG-ISI has rightly signed the MOU with the Afghan DG National Defence Security (NDS) to ensure security on the borders, which is our common concern.”

    [And he goes on to state that] “Now I hope, we know that a strategic shift in the Taliban movement has occurred, seriously impacting regional security. Having lost their support bases and sanctuaries in Pakistan, due to our military operations, the pivot of resistance now has shifted to the North of Afghanistan.”55

    Aided by Pakistan, the Taliban and the Haqqani Network operate freely in major portions of Eastern Afghanistan. With the Spring Offensive having been set in motion, the danger of the insurgency developing to a level that would destabilise the Afghan Government is growing. This would suit Pakistan’s long term strategy in Afghanistan. The fact that Pakistan did not intercept the movement of militant groups from North Waziristan to the northern parts of Afghanistan and that it had in fact engineered the move suggests Pakistan’s tacit approval of the shift and its hand in the developing situation in Afghanistan. The tone and tenor of the article written by General Beg also points to Pakistan’s implicit endorsement of the situation being shaped in Afghanistan.

    Some of the IMU fighters have pledged loyalty to the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq. Will internal squabbles and rivalry amongst militant groups neutralise the threat they pose? As for the IMU, as of now, it maintains its loyalty to the Taliban. It must also be noted that militant groups with similar ideologies sometimes split and do reunite as part of their tactics. The May 8, 2015 statement by the Governor of Kunduz that ISIL militants are “supporting the Taliban, training the Taliban, trying to build the capacity of the Taliban for a bigger fight,” validates this point.66

    Apparently, the Taliban and their affiliates are fighting in Afghanistan to consolidate their position, establish their base and then expand operations to Central Asia, Russia and China in that order. The objectives are as per the guidelines issued by Ayman al Zawahiri, the supreme leader of Al Qaeda, in his first and only Guidelines for Jihad.77 Under such circumstances, although disturbing, a link up of Islamic militant groups operating in the area is to be expected. From all indications, the Centre of Gravity of terrorism appears to be shifting from Pakistan to Northern Afghanistan.

    The failure of the Afghan state will result in the strengthening of Islamist groups such as the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and ISIS. Such a situation is likely to encourage greater numbers of Central Asians to join various factions of the Islamist groups.

    The major powers in the region need to realise that the collapse of the Afghan government would result in Central Asia confronting a major security problem and transmitting it to neighbouring Russia and China as well. The government in Afghanistan does not have the capacity to secure its borders, protect the civilian population in the interior and thus ensure the country’s territorial integrity. This will result in the Afghan Government’s fall. And the consequent spill over would destabilise governments in Central Asia and increase the likelihood of regime collapse in the countries of the region over a period of time. Consequently, one or more states would become hubs for the spread of Islamist militancy and terrorism while also serving as transit spaces for drug traffickers and other international criminal elements.

    If China hopes that Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NAD) and Pakistan’s ISI signing a Memorandum of Understanding to jointly fight terrorism and the signing of an agreement between Afghanistan and China to expand cooperation in the fight against terrorism could contain the evolving situation, they would be making a very serious mistake. The unfolding situation is beyond these agreements. What is needed is for the stakeholder regional countries threatened by Islamic militancy to get together under the umbrella of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and fight a joint war to end the menace. If China and Russia fail to read the situation correctly, over a period of time Islamist militant groups would do the job of containing them for the United States.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India