The Afghanistan Factor
Afghanistan stands to be one of the biggest influences in the rise of Islamism in Central Asia. The Islamic revolution in Iran of 1979, is the other one. But while Iran remains an inspiration mostly among the Tajik people who are the only non-Turkic ethnic group in the region, the Afghan jihad chapter remains a constant source of pride among the majority Sunni population of the region.
And Afghanistan has continued to deliver. Ever since the USSR left, Afghan has been under some or other kind of jihadi influence and has kept the Islamist candle burning bright for the region; whether through the civil war that immediately followed, the ascent of the Taliban, the US invasion or the return of the Taliban after 20 years. Whether through their countless acts of violence in and around the region or through their constant engagement and upper hand with legitimate establishments like the ISI or the Pakistan Army, Afghanistan has always been a model image amongst the radical minded central Asians. They have travelled there, got recruited there, and have fought for their ‘cause’ there, back home or somewhere abroad. Afghanistan has kept the flame of radicalism steady over the years.
Central Asian governments were naturally wary when the Taliban came to power in 2021. Because of its Soviet background, the region is still mostly secular and tolerant. Most mosques there have a steady record of shutting doors to any extreme preacher, and they do not just stop there for they also have an impressive record of reporting such speakers to the proper authorities. Islamism – or political Islam – has so far remained an underground movement, and central Asians still retain their tolerant Sufi Hanafi traditions and pre-Islamic rituals.
But with the Taliban in power, that looked ready to change. A certain section of the Western world (those that supported the US withdrawal) were of the opinion that it was the US that provided stability to the region by keeping the Taliban in check and that it was time for Russia and China to take ownership of their backyard.
There was palpable relief when the Taliban assured the neighbourhood that they would not permit region-destabilizing activities from their territory. But no matter how sincere in their intention, they do not look capable of delivering.
The ISKP Factor
Islamic State of Khorasan Province is the next big thing in the IS chronology after their original unit Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL). Crucial ISIL members somehow managed to escape Syria, and are known to have set shop in Afghanistan after Russian forces helped Assad to regain lost territories. And no matter what the Taliban government says in assurance, there are several pockets in Afghanistan (even according to their official confession, as tracked in an earlier update here in The New Indian), that have already been taken over by the ISKP.
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The ISKP propaganda is unique in the Islamist world. They have very successfully mixed the new world adrenaline rush with the conventional the old world ‘Muslim obligation to jihad’, have released them all over the internet and social media, and are quite adept in churning out content that underlines and reinforces the theme.
Analysts call it the battle for the mind, and the communication remains predicated on four legs: a) denouncing governments and inciting people to jihad; b) claiming exclusive jihadi legitimacy for a number of reasons; c) the Salafi-jihadi way of life; and d) dedicating the cause to the one true borderless struggle for the entire world.
The ISKP PR team always juggles between these four key messages depending on the geography and the audience. For example, their focus among the non-Pashtun speakers of Afghanistan centres around portraying the Taliban as Pashtun ethno-nationalist racist infidels who are hand in gloves with Russia and China, with ISKP as the only solution (points ‘a’ and ‘b’).
To the average Kerala Muslim, the appeal is based on symbolic significance prophesied in the past about Khorasan and its divine and victorious army carrying the black flag to spread around the world (point ‘a’ and ‘d’).
There has been a serious uptick in their recruitment. Thousands from Afghanistan and Central Asia, and hundreds from the rest of the continent irrespective of whether they are urban or rural, illiterate or educated, civilians or law-keepers, free or jailed, have joined the call to jihad. Central Asian jihadists too are joining.
With the Taliban now as a legitimate government and with KSA deciding to modify and moderate its future, to most of the radicals (individuals or groups) the Islamic State of Khorasan remains the one true representation of the Islamic obligation. This is the new avatar of Liquid Jihad that Al Qaeda ushered in during the 2000s, and ISKP’s latest target is central and south Asia.
The US Factor
When the US left Afghanistan last year, a small section of international conflict analysts (and enthusiasts like me) held on to the opinion that they were gone and not gone at the same time. A remote destabilization or running a hybrid war is easier; it is a lot less in terms of costs, especially if we consider the kind of money the US spent in its 20 years of occupation of Afghanistan.
Now with Imran Khan removed, the Pakistan Army might make it possible for the USA to regain a foothold in the region once again. That could make south/central Asia a stomping ground for ISKP and the US. Of course, we all know how the US war against ISIS in the Middle East went.
New Delhi has a lot to think and act about. India’s obsession with direct access to central Asia has stayed on for a long time because average Indian exports find more customers in developing markets like Asia or Africa, and India always had this wish to build soft-power influence in the heartland to counter China.
After a few non-starters like the Chabahar port or corridors through Afghanistan, now, with China exporting heavily into central Asia, it is time India’s Central Asia focus shifted from commerce to security. Central Asian jihad, whether their governments quash it in their turf or not, is bound to spill over to the rest of the continent. With ISKP propaganda touching new heights, there would be large-scale indoctrination. Border and cyber security would be crucial differentiators.
There must also be a strategy in place to deal with the subnational factor. It is important to remember that just like the US has checks and balances in place to unleash or harness agents of chaos across different geographies, China has them too. And a soft state like India with the government having no monopoly on violence is a fertile ground for sponsored separatism.
Can the tables be turned? We can look into that later.
(Arindam Mukherjee is a Calcutta-based author and a Learning & Development professional who likes to dabble in Eurasian geopolitics during his spare time.)
Note: This piece is the third part of Mukherjee’s series on central Asia.
(Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author’s own.)