Afghanistan, Wilayat Khorasan and the Dilemma of Fighting the 'Bigger Evil'

Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, India and Afghanistan are trying to work together to counter the IS's regional franchise, but they first need to overcome their suspicion of one another.

American anthropologist Karl G. Heider coined the term ‘Rashomon Effect’ after Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 classic to describe the phenomenon where different actors produce disparate accounts of the same event. Each account is self-serving, “intended to enhance the nobility of the teller”. The term aptly describes the conflicting regional assessments of Afghanistan’s current predicament and future policy course. The ongoing power play in the war-torn country, wherein Russia has reemerged as a ‘wild card’, has become a saga of ‘post-truth’ surrealism – where beliefs matter more than facts.

Motivated, allegedly, by a bid to assert its authority in Afghanistan and also acting on its desire to address its insecurities emanating from the country, Russia recently held six-party talks involving China, Pakistan, Iran, India and Afghanistan. Issuing a clarion call to jointly fight the so-called Wilayat Khorasan (WK) – the South and Central Asian “chapter” of ISIS – Moscow opened direct channels of communication with the Afghan Taliban on the premise that the latter constituted an Afghan insurgency with restricted territorial and ideological ambitions and was equally threatened by the WK, the “true” threat to regional and global ambitions.

The initiative pleased Islamabad, which has limited influence over some factions of the Afghan Taliban; it fit with Tehran’s calculus of keeping the WK at bay and competing for influence over the Afghan Taliban; and was supported by Beijing, which seeks stability in the region to ensure the success of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and to contain potential Islamist spillover into Xinjiang. More wary of a prolonged US presence in Afghanistan and the WK expanding, these countries are adopting a conciliatory approach towards the Afghan Taliban. More importantly, none of these countries are fundamentally at odds with each other.

Coming in the context of intense political polarisation and bureaucratic dysfunction in the US after the rise of Donald Trump, Moscow’s move shook policymakers in Kabul and New Delhi, both of whom view the Afghan Taliban as the key strategic threat supported by their common rival Pakistan. Both also depend on the continuing US security and economic presence in Afghanistan to advance their agenda. They assert that the WK is essentially a red herring in an otherwise straightforward battlefield, wherein Pakistan is manipulating and coercing the Afghan Taliban – its “proxy” – onto Afghanistan’s legitimate political landscape.

A series of recent media articles authored either by retired Indian officials or by analysts in consultation with serving officials, argue that New Delhi should try convincing the world that the Afghan Taliban is “no lesser evil”, and that choosing between the two is a “false dilemma”. Why? Because most WK members are “re-purposed” Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Afghan Taliban militants disillusioned from and/or disgruntled with their former organisations and its leadership. There is a firm belief among Indian officials and analysts that Pakistan’s intelligence agencies are helping “create” the WK to make the Afghan Taliban seem moderate and acceptable to regional powers.

Not surprisingly, each ‘camp’ has been trying to disabuse the other of its “misperception” about Afghanistan’s militant landscape. New Delhi’s recent diplomatic manoeuvring has succeeded in convincing Moscow into accepting the sanctity of the so-called “red lines” – that the Afghan Taliban will shun violence, abide by the Afghan constitution and cut ties with the al Qaeda – for negotiations to begin. The problem, however, persists, as few take India’s line seriously.

Whose interpretation is correct?

Each regional power has its own self-serving visions of the WK as well as of the Afghan Taliban – often a projection of their own insecurities. Iran, for instance, views the WK as an extension of ISIS in Iraq and Syria that is being propped up by its rivals in the Gulf, perhaps with the support of the US. Avoiding the opening of a two-front battle with ISIS elements on its eastern and western borders remains a priority for Tehran.

For Pakistan, the WK represents a new brand of militant Salafism that feeds upon and exacerbates existing sectarian divides. Paranoid about an Indian hand in most of its domestic troubles, many in Pakistan blame India’s current national security advisor, Ajit Doval, for supporting ISIS in Pakistan via Indian consulates in Afghanistan. It is not surprising that in July 2015 #DovalRunningISIS topped Pakistan’s Twitter trends. Even the current military operation, Radd-ul-Fasaad, and the way it has been presented to home audience, underlines Islamabad’s fact-free belief that Indian and Afghan agencies are enabling terrorists within Pakistan.

It remains unclear whether Russia is deliberately over-emphasising the threat from the WK to justify its entry into Afghan affairs to challenge the US’s role there. Nonetheless, Russia’s recent experience in Afghanistan and its tormented engagement with radical Islam (an aspect that requires deeper academic inquiry) cannot be underestimated. Given its military operations in Syria in support of the Bashar al-Assad regime, it is probable that Moscow genuinely views the WK as a threat. What is most interesting, however, is the prominent belief among Russian officials and analysts that the US has created the WK in order to undermine Russian interests in the region.

While all six countries agree that the WK’s links with ISIS in the Middle East are tenuous, New Delhi and Kabul view a Pakistani hand behind its existence; Tehran sees a Saudi and potentially an American hand; Islamabad blames Afghanistan and India for giving sanctuary, financially supporting TTP and other WK elements intent on targeting Pakistan; and Moscow smells a US conspiracy. In short, regardless of available facts, these powers have come to define the WK in ways that suit them best.

While there is subjective merit in all these interpretations, objectively they are all inaccurate.

As noted by Afghanistan expert Antonio Giustozzi during a recent talk at King’s College London, working in tight knit cells, the aim of the WK is to develop as a “sub-brand” of the original ISIS. Given the group’s battlefield losses in Iraq and Syria, however, the WK could also become a potential substitute and bearer (even if temporarily so) of the idea of an Islamic state. According to Giustozzi, WK raised nearly $271 million in 2016 from a mix of private donors (approximately $120 million), ISIS in Syria and Iraq (approximately $78 million), Arab Gulf states (approximately $40 million), as well as from local “taxes” (approximately $33 million). The group offers “better prospects” both financially and ideologically to armed youth.

Not surprisingly, the WK has attracted various breakaway factions from the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, as well as Jundullah and other local groups. Some of these include the Khilafat Afghan (former Afghan Taliban), the Tehreek-e-Khilafat Pakistan (former TTP), Tehreek-e-Khilafat Khorasan (former TTP), the Omar Ghazi group, the Muslimdost group, the Azizullah Haqqani group (former Afghan Taliban), the Shamali Khilafat, the Jaish-ul-Islam, the Harakat Khilafat Baluch, the Mullah Bakhtwar group (former TTP), the Jaish-ul-Islam and the China-oriented Gansu Hui group created by WK members themselves. While there is no consensus on the exact numbers of WK membership, they ranged at 3,000 to 8,000 during WK’s heyday, whereas current figures are estimated at 1,000 to 3,000 fighters.

In addition to WK’s above-mentioned composition, it also attracts sympathy and recruits from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Ansar al Islam (Iran) and other Central Asian groups. Even its competitors, such as the Afghan Taliban, TTP and al Qaeda, admire the puritanism of the group and its larger aims of building a caliphate. Though limited in its military capacity – which has reduced over the last year due to a mix of US drone strikes, Afghan army operations and Afghan Taliban offensives – the WK has polarised the sectarian landscape of the region even further. This was witnessed in a series of bomb-blasts in Pakistan recently, including that on Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine in Sehwan.

That said, regional powers run the risk of either underestimating or overestimating the WK’s potential, as well as that of the Afghan Taliban.

The WK and regional powers

Russian advocacy for treating the WK as the biggest threat to the region – a narrative that even Afghan president Ashraf Ghani employed during the initial phase of his outreach to Pakistan – has several flaws. Despite its ideological appeal and ability to instil fear, the WK does not have the requisite financial and military capacity to sustain, leave apart expand, its reach beyond certain pockets of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Its presence is more like ‘ink spots’ on a map rather than the swathes of territory held by the Afghan Taliban. This is a movement that can be militarily defeated or contained by a mix of drone strikes, Afghan army ops and intelligence-based crackdown on its funding.

Collaborating with the Afghan Taliban to defeat the WK, then, is an unpersuasive argument. More than anything, it raises suspicions about Moscow’s intent behind launching the diplomatic initiative. Is Russia simply using the WK to legitimise the Afghan Taliban and embarrass the US and its allies in Afghanistan? Not inviting New Delhi and the Kabul government to the first round of talks with the Afghan Taliban in December 2016 only added to this suspicion. Exaggerating the threat perception from the WK runs against available facts about the entity, even if one takes it to be in ace form and shape.

At the same time, India’s line of argument that the WK is nothing different from the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban because (1) it is composed of former members from these groups, (2) is generally a second-grade threat and (3) it mostly is an ISI-sponsored distraction from the real enemy, i.e. the Afghan Taliban, is equally flawed at multiple levels.

First, it underestimates the complexity the WK imparts to the militant landscape of the region. Despite limited capacities, the WK’s idea has tremendous appeal and is not showing signs of dying down. Even though ISIS is not a core security concern for India, WK has considerable salience and prospects in the neighbourhood, given the sectarian polarisation in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Second, there is no solid evidence that the WK is a Pakistani conspiracy despite Indian and Afghan insistence that this is the case. In March 2016, when India’s consulate in Jalalabad was attacked by WK elements, Indian officials claimed them to be under Pakistani influence. The fact that the WK has targeted Pakistani consulates in Afghanistan as well – and have a larger regional agenda of their own – was ignored. Yes, there is emerging consensus that the ISI has both direct and indirect links with certain factions of the WK. But it is far from controlling or even manipulating the group.

The WK has multiple funders with varying motivations, and is composed of groups from different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. The complexity of its composition and ambiguity of purpose makes the WK an easy prey to the Rashomon Effect whereby the potential of its threat and rationale for its existence lies in the eye of the beholder.

Third, the most critical flaw in the Indian reading is conflating the WK with the Taliban on one hand, and viewing the Afghan Taliban as a monolithic entity with a “terror” infrastructure (going by media analysis and advocacy) on the other. This line is flawed both empirically and conceptually. The Afghan Taliban and WK are qualitatively different groups, with different aims and ambitions. Moscow is correct when it says that there is “objective” alignment of their interests with that of the Afghan Taliban. The Afghan Taliban’s aims indeed are restricted to Afghanistan and its leadership today is deeply wary of external elements advocating global jihad – after having paid the price of hosting Osama bin Laden in the 1990s.

Branding the two as the same not only runs against facts on the ground, but also India’s own policy lessons about – and covert engagement with – certain factions of the Afghan Taliban.

The Afghan Taliban is no monolith. It is deeply fragmented and has never targeted India or Indian installations in Afghanistan, barring logistical support by the Haqqanis in some attacks. Moreover, despite employing terrorist methods, the Afghan Taliban is essentially an insurgency that responds to the structural problems related to day-to-day living, poor governance and the presence of foreign troops. In many instances, even localised feuds are articulated as “Taliban activity” without having any connection with the actual Taliban leadership.

In fact, there is evidence that despite its battlefield successes in Helmand and neighbouring provinces in the south, the Afghan Taliban is politically divided, bereft of economic supplies, and is often fighting with second-hand weapons. One of the key reasons for its success lies not in its skill, but in Afghanistan’s weak centre-periphery relations and the fact that most of the Afghan Taliban fighters are residents of these areas with contested state control. A quick survey of local narratives would show that the legitimacy of the Kabul government is as much in tatters in some regions of Afghanistan as that of the Taliban in other regions.

Finally, the assertion that the WK and Afghan Taliban are similar because the former’s members are “re-purposed” fighters of the TTP and the Afghan Taliban and not Arabs, is a conceptual leap of faith. Consider how absurd it might sound if we argued that Indian Maoists are not Maoists because they are not from China, and are little else but disgruntled and ambitious split-ists from the Communist Party of India. Or, that the Taliban of the 1990s was not really an Islamist movement because a many of its cadre included former members of Khalq faction belonging to the left-wing People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan.

These are weak arguments and it’s not surprising that few in the region take them seriously.

This Rashomon effect in the “post-truth” era implies that New Delhi and Kabul’s policy line of advancing an ‘Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled’ reconciliation runs against the fact that there are multiple bodies of opinion in Afghanistan, and the narrative of the Kabul government is not necessarily kosher. It also runs against the perceived realities of erstwhile partners, including Iran and Russia. And it implies that Russia, China and Pakistan’s forced attempts of legitimising the Afghan Taliban by highlighting a ‘bigger’ threat fails to address deep rooted problems of the region and are bound to fail.

As for the US, the recent request by General John W. Nicholson to put more US troops in Afghanistan gave allies hope that Washington might take charge of the situation. The appointment of Lieutenant General Harold McMaster as the US National Security Advisor buttressed hope that the US will continue to play an important role in shaping the future of Afghanistan. There are two key problems here. First, the systemic bureaucratic warfare under Trump runs so deep that appointees in top posts may not be able to reverse Trump’s lack of focus on Afghan security. Second, more US troops in Afghanistan will surely alter the military tide against the Afghan Taliban (as they have so often done), offering Kabul a position of strength to negotiate from, but it will only be a temporary measure. For the Afghan Taliban will “wait it out”, until diminishing returns kick in for the US. Moreover, having more troops in Afghanistan runs against Trump’s vision of reducing the financial and political burden on the US for maintaining world security. He demands that allies contribute more towards that pursuit. For India this could come in form of a ‘request’ to put boots on the ground – something for which New Delhi correctly has no political or military appetite.

In this context, the real challenge for all regional powers, then, is not to identify the bigger evil, but to acknowledge facts on the ground. They need to shed mutual suspicion – especially between India and Pakistan – and form a mechanism that allows for genuine reconciliation in which all parties carry the burden of compromise equitably. It’s a tall ask, but perhaps the only way one can address – and hopefully reconcile – disagreements between all the players. 

Avinash Paliwal is a lecturer in Defence Studies at King’s College London, and is the author of My Enemy’s Enemy: India in Afghanistan from the Soviet Invasion to the US Withdrawal (London: Hurst Publishers, 2017)