Recently reports have emerged about growing ISIS terrorist group’s activities in Afghanistan. Over the past year, the group’s attacks on various targets in Afghanistan compounded the security situation there, sending the neighboring countries worried about the consequences.
Alexander Brotnikov, the director of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) at a meeting of the security agencies of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) said that some 5,000 ISIS terrorist are now amassed in Afghanistan and the borders of the former Soviet Union. The Russian and Iranian officials have repeatedly warned about the US transfer of ISIS fighters from Syria and Iraq to Afghanistan. But what does the US seek behind their relocation?
US role in nurturing terrorist groups
The US defeat in Vietnam War exposed the American weakness in the ground and guerrilla warfare. After Iraq and Afghanistan invasion, the American military again proved to be weak in the face of the local militias fighting for US withdrawal. This led to a review of military doctrine. Washington turned to use of proxy forces especially in regions with fragile governments in a bid to prevent damages to its forces in combat zones.
Hillary Clinton, former US Secretary of State, in her book Hard Choices admitted that Washington created ISIS in 2013 and the US and EU coordinated their stances on the issue. So, the ISIS creation was an American idea that was materialized with the Saudi funding and ideological help. The recruitment started from the poor regions of Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Chechnya, and the third generation of the Muslim migrants to Europe who suffered an identity crisis and were not above 30.
The very interesting point was that the leaders of extremist groups were trained in the US and elsewhere under the cover of detention. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, for example, was captured by the US and spent four years in Camp Bucca in Iraq training with al-Qaeda forces.
Abdul Rauf Khadem, ISIS Afghan branch’s first leader, was a prisoner in Guantanamo prison up to 2007. He then joined the Taliban and in 2014 broke ranks with the movement to set up ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan. The German author Jurgen Todenhofer, who five years ago traveled to ISIS-held territories and met some of the group’s commanders, says that the ISIS forces were told through what he called a prophecy that they will one day temporarily coalesce with the US against a Muslim country. So, the lower layers of the terrorist group, who account for much of the group’s strength have, doctrinal preparation to collaborate with Washington after Syria and Iraq war.
What’s behind destabilizing northern Afghanistan?
Despite the fact that Russia initially supported the US presence in Afghanistan for counterterror war, it later lost its trust in the US Afghanistan plans. Afterwards, when Trump assumed the power, he named Russia a top national security threat to the US. Now the two powers’ competition in Afghanistan and Syria has reached new heights.
The US has 15,000 troops in Afghanistan, 6,000 of whom are special forces responsible for the anti-Taliban fight. Trump seeks to reduce his forces’ casualties by undermining the Taliban using ISIS. He said that the US forces should not prevent an ISIS-Taliban confrontation there.
One of the reasons for James Mattis to resign as Trump’s Secretary of Defense was the difference between him and the president over Afghanistan war doctrine. By strengthening ISIS in the north and specifically Jowzjan, Sar-e Pol, and Faryab provinces the US seeks a set of anti-Russian objectives. Here are some of them:
Undermining Shanghai Cooperation Organization
One of the most significant goals the Americans eye in the region is weakening the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Washington grew afraid of the SCO since in 2007 the organization held military drills with 6,500 troops. One clear message was a boost in the Chinese-Russian military cooperation. ISIS penetration of Central Asia will both bother Russia and challenge the security in Russia’s regional allies.
Endangering Russia’s largest cross-border military base
The 201 Military Base in Tajikistan is Russia’s largest military base off its borders. Tajikistan presents a defense line for the Russian territories outside Russia’s borders. If the security is risked in Tajikistan, securing the Russian border will be a strenuous job. ISIS has 2,000 Tajik fighters. Salafiyeh Movement of Tajikistan, founded in 2000 by Saudi Arabia with 20,000 members, has close relations with ISIS.
Helping Chechnya separatists
Chechnya represents a long-time security challenge to Russia. The largest number of non-Arab ISIS members came from Chechnya. Over 1,400 ISIS high and middle-ranking members are Chechen. Their relocation to Afghanistan offers them a new launching pad for a new front to put strains on Russia.
Blocking Russian foothold in Afghanistan
As ISIS grows strong, Russia is driven towards an alliance with the Taliban against the terrorist group. The US highlights the Russia-Taliban alliance as detrimental to the Afghan interests. Washington seeks to block Russian toehold through influencing the views of the Afghan political elites.
ISIS risks to China
After 2014, the year ISAF forces moved out of Afghanistan, China played a marked role in Afghanistan security. Afghanistan shares 70 kilometers of borders with China. In 2015, ISIS announced Nangarhar province as its stronghold. That is because it was close to Pakistan and terrorists could move between the two sides comfortably. Nangarhar also shares a border with Badakhshan province which itself is close to Chinese borders. Last year, China built its first Afghanistan military base in Badakhshan and launched investment projects to eradicate poverty in Afghan areas potentially posing danger to the Chinese territories.
Furthermore, Afghanistan is crossed by two routes of three main routes of China-sponsored Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The country saw Chinese investment in the mining sector since 2010. If Afghanistan stabilizes and the US forces move out of it, China will play the greatest security and economic role there. So, by helping ISIS grow there, the US seeks to destabilize Chinese borders and areas where Beijing plans to expand the business. The US also uses India’s role in Afghanistan to rival China. India already has the anti-Chinese potentials. It in April rejected a Chinese invitation for a BRI meeting because the project is planned in association with Islamabad, New Delhi’s rival.
ISIS, a pressure tool against Iran
Iran shares 945 kilometers of border with Afghanistan. ISIS presence in Afghanistan is in conflict with the Iranian interests as the two clash ideologically. ISIS names Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, and parts of Central Asia its Wilayat Khorasan, or Khorasan state. This ambition encourages the US to help the terrorist group to endanger Iran’s national security. Destabilizing Iran’s eastern borders has been a long-term American-Saudi strategy. Washington and Riyadh plan for a new anti-Iranian front on Iran’s eastern borders so that they can challenge its security in retaliation for its sway and their defeat in Iraq and Syria. The US administration also pursues a policy to increase Tehran’s security costs. Afghanistan instability will force Afghans into migration to neighboring Iran, which means an economic burden on the Islamic Republic.
The US ISIS policy is a wakeup call for Russia, China, and Iran to work towards a stable and common definition of security in the face of Trump’s “spread chaos and blackmail” strategy.