As Daesh continues to lose territory in Iraq and Syria throughout 2017, it’s capitalising upon Asian support networks to maintain relevance. Divisions within regional insurgencies and the looming threat of ‘Amexit’ could provide additional impetus for a pivot toward Asia.
In January 2015, Daesh announced a new province, Wilayat Khorasan, which notionally encompasses Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of Central Asia. When competing for influence in a region tired of foreign imposition, the Khorasan franchise faced resistance due to its recent arrival and imported ideology. However, its record of success and visible wealth attracted disenchanted militants at a time when physical and financial security had not been achieved despite 14 years of insurgency.
After initial gains, the group struggled to expand due to targeted airstrikes and fierce Taliban resistance. As of July 2016, however, the Taliban and Daesh reportedly ceased fighting in Nangarhar Province in order to focus attention on the central government and foreign forces. Since then, Daesh has expanded into neighbouring Kunar Province and increased its frequency of attacks. The Pentagon claims to have reduced the number of Daesh fighters in Afghanistan from 3000 to 1000 over the past year. But other observers have suggested that the group has a small but growing presence in the east, south and northwest of the country.
Wilayat Khorasan undeniably maintains active strongholds in three districts of Nangarhar. In 2015, former US defense secretary Ash Carter suggested these small ‘nests’ could be used to launch offensives near Kabul. This concern has since become a reality, with the group claiming responsibility for nine fatal attacks in the capital between July 2016 and May 2017, including the high-profile military hospital attack on 8 March, which resulted in 50 deaths. Furthermore, the presently unclaimed bombing in Kabul’s diplomatic district on 31 May, which killed 90 and wounded more than 400, bore the hallmarks of a Daesh attack. Reports of regular communication with Daesh central command, contributions from foreign financiers and militants from Iraq/Syria arriving to train recruits emerged in mid-2016. These incidents suggest the franchise is receiving increased attention and operational support from Daesh leadership.
The small yet robust sanctuary on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border could attract growing numbers of veterans from the Iraq/Syria conflict, and become the launchpad for Daesh into Central Asia (Tajikistan/Uzbekistan), Pakistan, China (Xinjiang) and Southeast Asia (Bangladesh/Malaysia/Philippines/Indonesia). This eventuality would threaten regional security by providing a catalyst for transnational crime and terrorist activity.
At a geostrategic level, Daesh expansion in Afghanistan could justify interference from Iranian Special Forces and Russian paramilitaries, as has occurred in Iraq and Ukraine. By employing measures short of war in this conflict zone, interested parties could expand their regional influence without overt confrontation. Meanwhile, Trump’s contradictory statements regarding Afghanistan have shed little light on the future of America’s longest war. Short-term tactics have appeared more concentrated over the past two months, with the US dropping the Mother of All Bombs, killing the leader of Wilayat Khorasan and suggesting a troop surge. However, a long-term strategy remains unclear. Trump’s opposition to US ‘boots on the ground’ and zero-sum attitude to foreign affairs suggest the international community should also prepare for a withdrawal scenario and an ensuing power vacuum.
So, the Afghan theatre is at a critical juncture. US foreign policy remains ambiguous. The national government controls approximately 63% of the state. Some observers (here and here) conclude Daesh is declining and no longer a major threat to Afghan stability. However, the embryonic movement is maintaining territory in the border regions, broadcasting daily radio segments, attracting high-profile defections and causing mass fatalities. If Daesh is overpowered in Iraq and Syria, it will need a success story to rebuild its reputation, and Afghanistan could be on the agenda. It is too soon to discount.
Remy Tanner is the International Security Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.