IS seeking to foment a sectarian war in Afghanistan.
IS’s Afghanistan-Pakistan branch, which styles itself as Khorasan Province, has expanded into Zabul that borders Pakistan’s restive Balochistan province and established training camps to roll out fighters for the Afghan frontline.
Its Pak ally, Lashkar-e Jhangvi Al Alami, a Punjab based radical Sunni anti-Shi’a militant group has also established a foothold in the province. Its sanctuaries are mostly in the remote mountainous districts of Dey Chopan, Arghandab, and Khak-e Afghan districts.
Experts see the emergence of Lashkar-e Jhangvi Al Alami on the Afghan scene as a part of a IS game to foment a war between Afghanistan’s majority Sunnis and minority Shi’ite Muslims, who have largely avoided a sectarian conflict.
IS training camps are located in mountainous areas which not under government control, according to Mirwais Noorzai, the provincial police chief. “We have some of the world’s nastiest militants here. They include Uzbeks and Kazaks, and Punjabis [from Pakistan],” he told Radio Free Afghanistan.”
Afghan officials says IS has made forays into Zabul after it came under pressure in Nangarhar province, which was its original stronghold in eastern Afghanistan. It had lost hundreds of fighters and six of the nine districts it controlled in the summer of 2015.
Zabul became a hotbed for international jihadists after a Pakistani military offensive pushed Central Asian and Pakistani militants into the region under operation Zarb-e-Azb in 2014.
While the Afghan government failed to tackle their arrival with a viable strategy, the Afghan Taliban took on some of the Central Asian fighters who had pledged allegiance to IS. Hundreds of Uzbek fighters and a former Taliban commander, Mansur Dadullah, who sheltered them were killed in late 2015.
Kabul now seems eager to rid Zabul of foreign fighters. On January 30, senior Zabul police official Ghulam Jilani Farahi said some 20 IS fighters died when the improvised bomb they were preparing exploded. The explosion took place at Khwar Zangi village of Arghandab district that borders Khak-e Afghan district.
The IS presence in Zabul is marked by extreme atrocities in the regions where its training camps operate. Scores of civilian families have fled the militants’ control into the relative safety of the provincial capital, Qalat, according to local officials.
US-led NATO forces are carrying out aerial strikes in the militant infested belt. The airstrikes in the third week of January killed some 50 foreign and local militants in Khak-e Afghan.
As pointed at the outset, the IS seeking to foment a sectarian war in Afghanistan. On Nov 21, 2016, IS targeted a Shi’ite shrine in the city of Kabul. It was the third such IS attack in the Afghan capital last year and resulted in the death of at least 30 people. “A martyrdom attack by an Islamic State fighter targets a Shi’ite [shrine] in the city of Kabul,” the group’s Aamaq Agency said in a newsflash.
Nearly 100 people were killed in attacks on Shi’ite protesters and worshipers in Kabul in July and October.
The Kabul attacks are in line with IS’s grand strategy, says Hekmatullah Azamy, a researcher at the Kabul-based Centre for Conflict & Peace Studies.
“They want to foment a larger [global] struggle between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims. Their focus on targeting the Shi’a in Kabul showcases this approach.”
A local chapter of IS first emerged in Nangarhar in late 2014. By summer 2015, it controlled large swathes of the province, particularly six districts along its eastern border with Pakistan.
“Daesh (Arabic acronym for IS) seems to be the future of militancy in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the broader region,” avers Hekmatullah Azamy.
“People need to pay close attention to this group because, unlike other militant groups in this region, it is not influenced by any state here,” Azamy adds pointing out that “IS has now positioned itself as the second-most influential group in Afghanistan following the Taliban.”
But its reliance on extreme violence against civilians, government forces, and even the Taliban has provoked a ground swell of opposition to the IS. This helped the Taliban to oust IS fighters from several Nangarhar pockets.
Sunni make up nearly 85 percent of Afghanistan’s 30 million population. Hazaras, who constitute a bulk of Afghanistan’s Shi’ite community, enjoy senior leadership positions in both the civilian and military parts of the Afghan government.
Lawmaker Ramzan Bashardost, a member of the Shi’ite Hazara minority community, is sceptical of IS’s ability to succeed in Afghanistan.
“So long as the Hazara leaders enjoy a major share in power, they will be reluctant to join any sectarian strife despite such (Nov 21, 2016) attacks,” he said.