Islamic State (Daesh) in Afghanistan: Spectre or Mirage?

Reverberating in international media these days, the terms Islamic State (IS), Islamic State of Iraq and Shams (ISIS), Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) and Daesh are appellations denoting the same entity.

Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, the leader of Daesh and self-anointed caliph, prefers the term ‘Islamic State’, and has on many occasions condemned his vile enterprise being called ‘Daesh’.

The declared goals of Daesh are territorial conquest and establishment of a world-wide Islamic Caliphate; extermination by beheading, crucifixion, and immolation of all males of fighting age who do not subscribe to the ISIS interpretation of Islam or fail to conform strictly to it; all women and children to be personal slaves and distributed to ISIS fighters as spoils of war (maal e ghanimat); some non-believers allowed to live on as ‘Dhimmi’ i.e. as a subhuman subservient class paying ‘Jaziya’ tax in lieu of being allowed to survive.

ISIS mouthpiece ‘Dabiq’ contains extensive material on its doctrine, goals, methodology, and the most heinous of atrocities it has precipitated; also its other ‘successes’ in terms of colossal scale of irreparable destruction of world heritage sites and antiquities from pre-Islamic times.

Propaganda, especially tech-savvy propaganda, fully exploiting the reach and impact of modern social media is a key weapon expertly wielded by Daesh fighters.

Propaganda, especially tech-savvy propaganda, fully exploiting the reach and impact of modern social media is a key weapon expertly wielded by Daesh fighters

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

ISIS fighters out-rightly 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.

Their fighters are therefore at variance in terms of theological doctrine on the one hand with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia which, though wedded to Wahhabism, adheres to Hanbali jurisprudence; and is at variance also with the Taliban - followers of Hanafi jurisprudence.

But Daesh also has fighters whose credo is identical to that of Saudi wahhabis and is cozily compatible with that of the Taliban. 

Like the wahhabis, Daesh also rejects, condemns, vilifies, and abjures Sufism, Sufi saints, Sufi shrines, Sufi literature, Sufi practices and rituals, and traditions such as ‘Urs’ (remembrance) and ‘Mannat’ (prayer for favors)  or ‘Wasila’ (intervention) at the shrines of Sufi saints.

Daesh, similarly, is committed also to eradicating Shias, Shi’ite literature, Shi’ite jurisprudence, Shi’ite prayers, Shi’ite mosques, seminaries and madrassas.

They also treat as apostate (Murtad) all those who do not conform completely and strictly and exclusively with their preferred interpretation of the Quran, Hadith, and Sira; and dictates all apostates and hypocrites (Munafiq) to be killed forthwith.

Daesh makes it a point to cite verses of holy Islamic scriptures, although selectively and out of context, to justify its vision, mission, and every policy, decision, and action.

Microscopic detail of human life, individual, familial, or in community, is also strictly dictated: including minutiae of prayer procedure, costume, cuisine, hair and beard style, personal hygiene, how to eat food, how to drink water, butchery method, finance and banking, education; as also slavery, screening of women and girls, mode of beating wives, execution of offenders, and so on.

Daesh in Afghanistan
It would be a surprise if Daesh did not covet control over Afghanistan for its inestimable geostrategic and geopolitical importance, vast natural resources, and the scope afforded thereby for projecting power and doctrinal influence.

West-East, North-South intercontinental overland routes connecting Europe, Russia, Central Asia and China with South Asia, all need to pass through Afghanistan.

Acquiring interdictory potential vis-a-vis these routes affords incalculable monetary, strategic, tactical, and political advantage.

ISIS aims include spreading its arcane ideology of reductionism and violent extremism throughout the populations of Central Asian Muslim republics: Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgystan, Kazakhstan, and further afield, in Azerbaijan, Dagestan, Chechnya in the Russian Federation, and Chinese Turkestan (Xinjiang Province of China).

Location in Afghanistan enables potential targeting of the subcontinent of India including Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Afghanistan is the most convenient geo-strategic location for prosecution of all the above aims and objects.

Furthermore, consider the scale of the mercenary stake involved in control of cultivation of Afghan poppy crop, and the production, stocking, transport, and trade, of opiate narcotic derivatives, especially heroin.

Just one province of Afghanistan, Helmand, accounts for almost 90 percent of heroin consumed in Europe.

Afghanistan’s narcotics are reached worldwide. Afghanistan is rich in minerals including 13 of the 17 rare minerals, cobalt, platinum, gold, silver, and gem stones of the highest quality.

During the Mujahedeen period, the heroic Tajik leader Ahmad Shah Massoud financed guerilla operations to a substantial extent by selling emeralds and lapis lazuli extracted from mines in northern Panjshir valley, and northeastern Badakhshan province.

The world’s largest stock of lithium, a key raw material for electronics, is in Afghanistan, as is 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.

Noteworthy here is that appreciation of Afghanistan’s geostrategic, geopolitical value must equally be attractive to others, near and far, zealous to gain and retain dominance in Afghanistan.

Is it Daesh operating in Afghanistan?
Following upon the self-branded Daesh startling blitzkrieg in Iraq and Syria, and its horrid signature brutalities there, reports have appeared of similar attacks and atrocities in Farah, Helmand and Nangarhar provinces in Afghanistan by gang-members flaunting the ISIS banner.

Whether the culprits are operatives of the Daesh remains, however, a contentious subject. Afghan television channels, radio channels, newspapers, magazines and social media carry wide-ranging analyses and commentaries.

The threat of Daesh in Afghanistan has been referred to and debated in the Afghan parliament too.

Afghan president Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, on his part, has admitted that Daesh has emerged in Afghanistan, and has come to pose a serious threat.

Presumably, President Ghani, a former John Hopkins University professor and senior World Bank official, would have premeditated the merits and demerits of making such an assertion in public.

Emphasizing his assessment of the threat Daesh poses, Ghani declared “if Taliban is Windows 1, DAESH is the Windows 6 version” in potency of threat.

Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, has pointedly made known that President Ghani in a video conference with US President Obama has briefed him about the menace Daesh in Afghanistan and has urged the US President, in view of new ground realities, to reconsider US troop-withdrawal from Afghanistan.

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

Countries in an arc around Afghanistan:  Iran, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are seized with the ramifications to their security of the ultra-violent extremism that Daesh promotes.

So is China, on account of the predominantly Uighur Muslim-populated Xinjiang province in China’s southwest.

The notion that Daesh 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 SCO role in Afghanistan's “peace and reconciliation” process.

Afghan president Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, on his part, has admitted that Daesh has emerged in Afghanistan, and has come to pose a serious threat

Gen. John F. Campbell, commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, is on record saying that ISIS is actively recruiting in Afghanistan, and fighting between ISIS and the Taliban has become a cause for concern and has a bearing on US plans of force withdrawal.

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

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

Suspicion is often expressed of the possibility that an impression is being cultivated about Daesh presence in Afghanistan.

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 purposes, including keeping Afghanistan destabilized, and creating justification for continuance of foreign force presence in Afghanistan.

Enayatullah Nazari, the then acting Defense Minister said in Meshrano Jirga (upper house) that the investigations reveal that “Taliban commanders in Afghanistan have changed their physical appearance and are acting as Daesh militants.”

The formidable police chief of southern Kandahar province, General Abdul Raziq, went 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, the former head of National Directorate of Security (NDS), has also spoken in dismissive terms about Daesh in Afghanistan on lines similar to Gen. Raziq.

Groups of foot-soldiers of Pakistan-based Taliban are said to be assigned to display ISIS flags, carry out ISIS style beheadings and mutilations, and issue warnings and triumphalist statements as if from ISIS.

It is further circulated that disgruntled former Taliban, and volunteers from Central Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Persian Gulf, have enlisted with Arab-funded Daesh to avail of higher pay and better service conditions on offer.

Afghanistan has after all been a military labor market from ancient times, with fighters joining up with whoever pays better, it is contended.

It is also mentioned that terrorists of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and from Chechnya, who were in Waziristan and other parts of Pakistan’s frontier areas, have been obliged to assume Daesh identity and perpetrate their bone-chilling atrocities.

That Iran is stated to be supporting the Taliban against ISIS in Afghanistan is mentioned in Pakistani news output, aiming indirectly to insinuate Daesh presence in Afghanistan.

The known fact is that during the mujahedeen period, with a view to establishing firmer control and flexibility, Pakistan’s intelligence agency had divided the mujahedeen fighters into seven distinct groups, the more effectively to be controlled and manipulated against each other.

That model of intervention, i.e., of several groups and cells being made operational simultaneously, has been in vogue with GHQ Rawalpindi and introduced in Afghanistan as well as Indian-controlled-Kashmir.

Time will tell whether it is an Al Baghdadi-led, Arab-manned Daesh that is cropping up like dragon’s teeth in Afghanistan, or local manpower being recruited under its banner, or some external entities masquerading as Daesh.

Conflict between Islam in Afghanistan and ISIS
Whatever the truth is about ISIS being in Afghanistan, it is important to be mindful of the profound conflict and tension between Islam as understood and practiced in Afghanistan, and the ultra-reductionism and violent extremism propagated by Daesh.

Raising awareness on this score is vital towards waging, on the basis of facts and valid thesis, 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, now perhaps 87-88 percent 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, it is normal for Afghans of all sects to visit the shrines of saints, revere spiritual and holy personalities, seek their intercession with the divine, and use amulets and other ‘protections’.

It may be recalled here that the revered Sufi saint, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, whose shrine is in Delhi, and Mughal Emperor Jalaluddin Mohammad Akbar’s contemporary, Sufi saint Hazrat Shaikh Salim Chishti whose Dargah is in Ajmer, were both from Afghanistan, and their places of rest exert a powerful pull on Afghans.

Daesh and Wahhabism totally and emphatically trample on both:  the Hanafi Sharia, as well as Sufism and its rituals and traditions, all Sufi saints and their shrines.

Vehemently, both condemn and utterly denounce these as un-Islamic, opposed to the Quran and the Hadith.

As far as Afghanistan is concerned, experience of brutality and sadism during the Taliban regime which took control of the country with external sponsors, is not forgotten by Afghans

In short, the stark truth is that Daesh doctrine, goals and methodology pose an existential threat to the lives of more than 98 percent population of Afghanistan, and the populations of all South Asia: including Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka.

Likewise, it poses a threat to populations in the states of the Central Asian Region.

As far as Afghanistan is concerned, experience of brutality and sadism during the Taliban regime which took control of the country with external sponsors, is not forgotten by Afghans.

In the current Information Age, Daesh 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, the 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, not 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 Daesh, 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.

Shrinivasrao S. Sohoni, formerly, Senior Adviser, Office of Administrative Affairs & Council of Ministers Secretariat, Office of the President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan from 2006 to 2013; and, earlier, Secretary to the President of India (1995-97). He can be reached at

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Afghan Zariza’s editorial policy.  

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