‘ISIS’ in Afghanistan: Spectre or Mirage?

Published: August 7, 2015 - 20:31 Updated: December 13, 2017 - 12:44

The declared goals of ISIS are territorial conquest and the establishment of a worldwide Islamic Caliphate, ahead of a predicted apocalypse of Islamic theology. Is Afghanistan on their radar?

Shrinivasrao S Sohoni Dili


These names have figured a lot in international news coverage: Islamic State (IS), Islamic State of Iraq and Shams (ISIS), Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and DAESH. These aren't the names of countries or separate political/terrorist groups, they all denote the same entity. 

DAESH stands for Daulat Al Islamiya fi al Iraq wa al Shams. Curiously, in Arabic, the letters that compose DAESH –  ‘dal’, ‘alif’, ‘yea’ and ‘shin’ – when put together, mean ‘tramples’ or ‘a trampler’.

The Saudi regime calls the group DAESH, as do Afghanistan’s President, Ashraf Ghani, and US Secretary of State John Kerry. In fact, Saudi King Salman bin Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz once referred to the group as FAESH, an expletive. 

Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, DAESH’s putative leader and self-anointed Caliph, prefers the exalted term ‘Islamic State’. He has prohibited his enterprise being called ‘DAESH’. 

Declared Goals 

The declared goals of ISIS are territorial conquest and the establishment of a worldwide Islamic Caliphate, ahead of a predicted apocalypse of Islamic theology. Some ‘natural’ by-products of these goals are: a) The extermination by beheading, crucifixion and immolation of all males of fighting age who don’t convert to the ISIS’s interpretation of Islam or fail to strictly conform to it, and, b) Making all women and children personal slaves and distributing them to ISIS fighters as spoils of war (Ghanimat) and as usable and disposable property. Along the way, some non-believers will be allowed to live on as ‘Dhimmi’, that is, as a sub-human, subservient class that will pay ‘Jaziya’ or taxes for being allowed to live. 

On pain of death by stoning, crucifixion, scourging, or burning alive, ISIS enjoins strict compliance with the commandments of the Holy Quran and the Sunna of Prophet Mohammad. These texts are to inform all aspects of social, economic and political life, as well as all aspects of personal existence, from the pre-natal stage to the posthumous stage. 

The ISIS mouthpiece, Dabiq, contains extensive material on its doctrine, goals and methodology as well as details of the most heinous atrocities it has perpetrated. Also featured in Dabiq are its ‘successes’ in irreparably destroying world heritage sites and antiquities from pre-Islamic times. 

Propaganda, especially tech-savvy propaganda – that fully exploits the reach and impact of modern social media – is a key weapon expertly wielded by ISIS. 

Afghanistan is depicted by ISIS as being part of ‘Khorasan’ (Land of the Sun) that was ruled by the Achaemenids (6th to 4th centuries BCE), Parthians, the Sassanians (3rd century BCE) and then conquered by the Arabs (651-652). 

ISIS’s Ghair Muqaledeen Salafists reject and condemn all four Sunni Imams and are committed to eradicating the four branches of jurisprudence (Sharia) named after them, Hanafi, Shafi, Maliki and Hanbali. (Ghair Muqaledeen are those who reject Taqleed, or the emulation of any of the traditional schools of Islamic Sunni jurisprudence.) These Ghair Muqaledeen Salafists are therefore at odds with Saudi Arabia and with the Taliban, in terns of theological doctrine. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is also wedded to Wahhabism, but it adheres to Hanbali jurisprudence and the Taliban are followers of Hanafi sharia. 

Still, that’s not too much of an inconvenience because ISIS also has Muqaledeen Salafists, whose credo is identical to that of the Saudi Wahhabis and is compatible with that of the Taliban’s. 

Like the Wahhabis, ISIS rejects, condemns, vilifies and abjures  Sufism, Sufi saints, Sufi shrines, Sufi literature, Sufi practices and rituals and traditions such as urs (remembrance), mannat (prayer for favours) and wasila (intervention) at Sufi saint shrines. 

ISIS is further committed to eradicating Shias and Shi’i literature, jurisprudence, prayer procedure, mosques, imambaras, seminaries and madrassas. They are considered outside the fold of Islam and offensive to Islam. 

ISIS treats as apostate (‘Murtad’), and apostatizes (‘Takfir’) all who do not conform completely, strictly and exclusively with ISIS’s preferred interpretation of the Quran, Hadith, and Sira. ISIS says all apostates and hypocrites (‘Munafiq’) must be killed. 

ISIS presents itself as punctiliously and minutely following the Holy Quran and Prophet Mohammad’s Sunna (sayings and doings). ISIS makes it a point to meticulously cite chapter and verse of scriptural authority, drawing foremost on the Holy Quran and the  Hadith, to justify its vision, mission and every policy, decision, and action. ISIS also details the minutiae of conducting life, including prayer procedure, costume, cuisine, hair- and beard-style, personal hygiene, manner of dining, method of drinking water, butchery manner, finance and banking methods, education-style and wife-beating methods, among other things. 

Why Afghanistan? 

It would be surprising if ISIS didn’t covet control over Afghanistan for its inestimable geostrategic and geopolitical importance, for its scope of doctrinal influence, its military power projection and for its financial gains. Intercontinental overland routes connecting Europe, Russia, Central Asia and China with South Asia have to pass through Afghanistan. Acquiring interdictory potential vis-a-vis these routes affords huge monetary, strategic, tactical and political advantages. 

ISIS’s aims include spreading its ideology of reductionism and violent extremism throughout the populations of Central Asian Muslim republics: Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kirghizstan, Kazakhstan, and further afield, in Azerbaijan, Dagestan, Chechnya in the Russian Federation and Chinese Turkestan. 

Its location in Afghanistan enables potential targetting of the Indian subcontinent, including Pakistan and Bangladesh. 

Afghanistan is the most convenient geo-strategic location for the pursuance of these aims.  

Furthermore, consider the scale of the mercenary stake involved in the control of cultivation of Afghan poppy and the production, stocking, transport and trade of opiate narcotic derivatives, especially heroin. Just one province of Afghanistan, Helmand, accounts for 90 per cent of heroin consumed in Europe. Afghanistan’s narcotics have a worldwide reach. Afghanistan is rich in minerals, including 13 of the 17 rare earths, cobalt, platinum, gold, silver, and gems of the highest quality. 

During the Mujahedeen war, Tajik leader Ahmad Shah Massoud financed guerrilla operations to a substantial extent by selling emeralds and lapis lazuli extracted from mines in Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley and Badakhshan Province. 

The world’s largest stock of lithium, a key raw material for electronics, is in Afghanistan, as are copper and iron ore of the highest cuprous and ferrous content. Illicit mining, contraband mineral and gems trade, rapacious timber extraction and human trafficking have boomed in Afghanistan. 

The Amu Darya basin has substantial hydrocarbon resources. The TAPI project envisages laying a pipeline from adjacent Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan and India. 

However, the rationale of Afghanistan’s geostrategic and geopolitical value must be equally attractive to others, near and far, who are zealous to gain and retain dominance in Afghanistan.

Is it ISIS that is operating in Afghanistan?

Following the self-branded ISIS’s startling blitzkrieg in the Iraq and Syria theatre and its hideous, signature brutalities there, there have been reports of similar attacks and atrocities in Farah, Helmand and Nangarhar provinces in Afghanistan by gang members flaunting the 
ISIS banner.

Whether the culprits are actual operatives of the ISIS remains a contentious subject. Afghan television, radio, print and social media carry wideranging analyses and commentaries on ISIS and its threat to Afghanistan. Even the Afghan parliament has debated it. Afghanistan President Ghani, on his part, has proclaimed that DAESH has emerged in Afghanistan and has come to pose a serious threat.

Emphasising his assessment of the threat ISIS poses, Ghani  declared: “If the Taliban is Windows 1, DAESH is the Windows 6 version.”

US General Martin E Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has pointedly made known that President Ghani, in a video conference with US President Obama, briefed them about the menace ISIS is in Afghanistan and urged the US President, in view of the new ground realities, to reconsider the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. Dempsey told the world media that Ghani offered Afghanistan as a “regional hub” for US counteraction against ISIS, and that they discussed the scope for joint action.

Dempsey has himself referred to ISIS as posing a “transnational and trans-regional threat”.

Regimes of countries in an arc around Afghanistan: from Iran, through Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kirghizstan and Kazakhstan, are seized with the ramifications to their security of the ultra-violent extremism that ISIS perpetrates. So is China, on account of the predominantly Uighur Muslim-populated Xingjian province in
China’s southwest.

The notion that ISIS is gaining strength in Afghanistan appeared recently in an authoritative Chinese foreign policy commentary, and was cited as part of the justification for an increased Shanghai Cooperation Organisation role in Afghanistan’s “peace and reconciliation” process.

General John F Campbell, Commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, is on record having talked of ISIS actively recruiting in Afghanistan and about the fighting between ISIS and the Taliban having a bearing on US plans of force withdrawal.

A statement has been attributed to the Taliban as being addressed to the leadership of ISIS, to desist from impinging on Afghanistan.

On the other hand, there are senior and well-informed persons with opinions entirely to the contrary.

Suspicion is often expressed of the possibility that, sedulously, an impression is being cultivated about ISIS presence and menace in Afghanistan.

President Ghani’s public statements about ISIS, the publicity about his invitation to the US to use Afghanistan as a hub against ISIS and that idea being warmly received by Gen. Dempsey are viewed by some analysts as  choreographed.

Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai has categorically rejected the notion that ISIS is in the fray in Afghanistan, terming it a propaganda ploy to cover ulterior motives, including keeping Afghanistan destabilised and creating a justification for the continuance of foreign force presence in Afghanistan.

Enayatullah Nazari, then acting as Afghanistan’s Defence Minister, is on record in Afghanistan’s Meshrano Jirga (House of Elders) as having said: “Our investigations reveal that Taliban commanders in Afghanistan have changed their physical appearance and are acting as ISIS militants [but] are in fact the Taliban.”

Kandaha province’s redoubtable police chief, General Abdul Raziq, has gone further and stated: “…regional intelligence agencies, operating in this country for the last 20 years in the name of Taliban, now want to replace the Taliban’s white flags with black ones and give it the name of IS.”

Amrullah Saleh, intrepid former head of Afghanistan’s premier intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (Riyasat-e-Amaniyat-e-Milli), has also spoken dismissively about ISIS in Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan’s governance circles, including in its national security and foreign policy establishment, and its now dynamic civil society, a proposition under debate is that ISIS, coincidentally, serves Washington’s interests
rather well.

It exerts pressure on the US’s principal global adversaries in the Asian landmass: a) the Russian Federation – via all the Muslim Central Asian Republics comprising Russia’s ‘soft underbelly’ and, b) China – potentially endangering China’s ambitious road and pipeline extension projects in the region. Pressure is also added on Iran.

Overall, projecting a burgeoning new threat as sinister as ISIS promotes a psychological climate favouring US military presence  in Afghanistan.

That the US’s long-term major ally in West Asia, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, is the originator of ISIS, and, contrary to appearances, the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf are ISIS’s chief source of fighters, war material and funding, is also cited in this connection.

By depicting ISIS as having arrived and being active in Afghanistan, terrorist acts and insurgency of the Taliban can be continued, and attributed to ISIS.

This is even more useful whenever the charade of peace talks with the Taliban is being staged.

It is further circulated that disgruntled former Taliban and volunteers from Central Asia, the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf have enlisted with the Arab-funded ISIS to avail of the higher pay and better service conditions on offer. Afghanistan has, after all, been a military labour market from ancient times, with fighters joining up with whoever pays better.

It is also mentioned that terrorists of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and from Chechnya, and the like, who were in Waziristan and other parts of the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier region, have been obliged to assume ISIS identity and perpetrate ISIS-style outrages.

That Iran is stated to be supporting the Taliban against ISIS in Afghanistan is mentioned in the Pakistani media, in an effort to point to an ISIS presence in Afghanistan.

Current Western and Arab narratives about ISIS depict it in conflict with Al-Qaeda, which reportedly had sworn allegiance to the Taliban’s leader, Mullah Omar.

However, the underlying factual position in that respect remains unproven.

The fact that Saudi Arabia and Sunni regimes in the Gulf have birthed, massively funded, armed and mentored both entities, in keeping with Saudi Arabia’s policy of far-reaching propagation of Wahhabi-Salafism and targetting of Iran and Shias, is not to be lost sight of.

The known fact is that, during the Mujahedeen War, with a view to establishing firmer control and flexibility, Pakistan’s intelligence services had divided the mujahedeen fighters into seven distinct groups, so they could be more effectively controlled and manipulated against each other and against the Russians. That model of intervention, of several groups and cells being made operational, has been in vogue with the Pakistani army leadership and has also been introduced in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

Whether it is the Baghdadi-led ISIS that has cropped up in Afghanistan, or entities masquerading as such, only time will tell. 

Collision and conflict between Islam as believed and practised in Afghanistan and Salafist religious ideology and methodology

Whatever the truth about ISIS being in Afghanistan, it is important to understand that there is a profound conflict and tension between Islam as understood and practised in Afghanistan and ISIS’s ultra-reductionism and violent extremism.

Raising awareness on this score is vital to waging a concerted information war against violent extremism in Afghanistan and in Central and South Asia, China, South-East Asia and even in Europe and North America.

Afghanistan has a millennium-old rigorously conservative Sunni Muslim society, that is now perhaps 87-88 per cent of the country’s population. However, Afghan Sunni Muslims have adhered to Hanafi Sharia ever since Imam Abu Hanifa (who, incidentally, hailed from a Kabul-based family) generated and developed jurisprudence known as Hanafi Sharia (Sharia: literally, the path to the oasis) in the first century following the inception of Islam.

Under the Constitution of Afghanistan, Hanafi jurisprudence is privileged as a residual source of law in the absence of explicit legislation or other constitutional provisions.

Afghanistan also has an age-old Sufi tradition and the belief and practice of Islam in Afghanistan is suffused with Sufism.

Thus, Afghans of all sects regularly visit saints’ shrines, revere spiritual and holy persons, seek their intercession with the divine, and use amulets and other ‘protections’. Sufi saint Hazrat Shaikh Salim Chishti, whose dargah is in Ajmer, was from Afghanistan and his place of rest continues to exert a powerful pull on Afghans.

ISIS and Wahhabism emphatically trample on both the Hanafi Sharia as well as Sufism. Both denounce these as un-Islamic, Kuffr, Haram, opposed to the Quran and the Hadith, and say they must be destroyed and all adherents must be executed without mercy. The brutality and sadism during the Taliban regime has not been forgotten by the people of Afghanistan.

In the current information age, ISIS is viewed by Afghans to be a worse proposition, advanced by a similar combination of external forces, for similar ends and purposes but on a larger and more alarming scale.

Chinese strategist Sun Tzu (4th century BCE) in his Art of War had enunciated the axiom: “Kill one, frighten ten thousand.”

There is, however, a Pashto saying: “An Afghan may with ease be led into Hell on courteous request, but will fiercely resist being forced to ascend to Heaven.”

Unlike peoples of other nations in the region, Afghans are not easily frightened, not easily subdued and cowed, nor easily dominated. Though riven with tribal feuds and inter-ethnic tension and conflict, they fight back and fight hard against external aggressors.

The masterminds of ISIS, Taliban, or any other such entity invented in the days ahead, even if a stupendously potent threat, will learn that lesson and it will be a costly one.   

The writer was Senior Adviser, Office of Administrative Affairs & Council of Ministers Secretariat, Office of the President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (2006-2013), and Secretary to the President of India (1995-1997)


The declared goals of ISIS are territorial conquest and the establishment of a worldwide Islamic Caliphate, ahead of a predicted apocalypse of Islamic theology. Is Afghanistan on their radar?
Shrinivasrao S Sohoni Dili

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