Will ISIS Rebuild in Afghanistan?

Will ISIS Rebuild in Afghanistan?
AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed
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As the military campaign to recapture the city of Raqqa intensifies with the arrival of U.S. forces in Syria, and the battle for the Iraqi city of Mosul reaches its last stages, the decimation of the Islamic State group’s self-styled caliphate appears imminent. In preparation for ISIS’s final act, much has been written on what Iraq and Syria will look like in the wake of its reign. However, beyond discussion about the terrorist diaspora that will descend upon the United States and Europe as thousands of foreign fighters return home, little attention has been paid to the future territorial ambitions of the ISIS core. In September 2014, at the height of ISIS’s power, local Iraqis and Syrians comprised 90 percent and 70 percent respectively of ISIS’s military cadre in its so-called Islamic State. When the caliphate falls, what will this core tenet of fighters -- discarded by their home communities and fluent in the jihadi organization’s military and ideological tradecraft -- pick as their next theater?

It may be tempting to address this question from a military perspective alone -- especially in light of President Trump’s multibillion-dollar fortification of the defense budget -- but an understanding of ISIS’s ideological infrastructure provides a more accurate guidebook. The Islamic State group’s ideological beliefs and military activity are often analyzed separately, by different U.S. agencies, with de-radicalization efforts aimed at ideology, and military activity informing America’s battlefield response. However, a close read of this influential ISIS manifesto suggests that this siloed approach may be misdirecting the United States’ broader counterterrorism campaign. Pairing the main tenets of ISIS ideology with the group’s past military activities helps to better understand the organization’s operational goals, its ideological selection of targets, and the tactics it uses to ensure longevity. Using these three factors to forecast what country ISIS will seize as its next territorial conquest, Afghanistan emerges as an attractive and tenable target.

The Management of Savagery

While relatively unknown to the Western world, a booklet called The Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage Through Which the Umma Will Pass has been claimed by several ISIS commanders as “part of the organization’s curriculum.” Published to the Internet in 2004 under the pseudonym Abu Bakr Naji, Management of Savagery was originally written for al-Qaeda but was rejected by leader Ayman al-Zawahiri for being too radical. Its strategy did, however, resonate with top ISIS commanders’ Baathist roots, and it subsequently spilled over to guide that organization’s two-tiered crusade to consolidate the Muslim world territorially and ideologically.

Management of Savagery is striking because it resembles a comprehensive military plan more than the outline of a specified Islamist ideology; it outlines a series of military campaigns with the ultimate goal of restoring the caliphate and establishing an Islamic state. First, in the “stage of the power of vexation and exhaustion,” Naji instructs militants to exhaust the chosen state and overthrow the governing authorities, creating “savagery and chaos” in order to force the targeted society to “suffer from the absence of security.” Second, the “stage of the administration of savagery” prescribes the militants’ “management” of the regions of savagery, which, if successful, will enable them to consolidate control throughout the conquered territory.

ISIS’s Campaign Strategy Applied to Afghanistan  

Afghanistan is a viable target because ISIS’s stage-one goal of “vexing and exhausting” the state has already been accomplished by domestic actors. The Taliban are resurgent in Afghanistan, and the foreign military presence is perpetual yet fluctuating. Against that backdrop, political violence, corruption, and a stagnating economy have broken down Afghanistan’s political space. In the eyes of the Islamic State group, this makes Afghanistan an easy operational target because the country’s lack of democracy and security helps ISIS exacerbate existing societal divides. ISIS’s affiliate in Afghanistan, known as the Khorasan Province, has successfully exercised this tactic to gain territory in at least seven Afghan provinces. It is important to note that similar to ISIS’s tactic of seizing upon historically significant territory that negates the sovereignty of Iraq and Syria’s state borders, the Khorasan Province claims jurisdiction over “a historical region incorporating parts of modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Defining territory based upon its historical importance to Islam, as opposed to nation-state borders, furthers ISIS’s goal of delegitimizing Afghanistan’s institutions and planting fertile roots for a prospective takeover by ISIS core.

Second, Management of Savagery, in addition to ISIS’s record of attacks around the globe, reflects that the group seeks to eliminate what it considers apostate Muslims in addition to foreign infidels. Foreign troops in Afghanistan deployed by NATO, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Australia have been frequent targets of ISIS’s vendetta against what it considers infidels. Additionally, similar to the Taliban, ISIS views much of Afghanistan as occupied by apostate Muslims given the country’s reenergized focus on education -- especially for women -- in the early 2000s. This apostate narrative is furthered by the fact that ethnic and tribal affiliations shape the average Afghan’s identity more profoundly than an adherence to Islam. Thus, Afghanistan’s role as host to so-called apostates and infidels makes it an attractive theater for ISIS to target both “enemy groups” on one territorial battleground.

Finally, looking to the regions where ISIS has most effectively acquired affiliates and sympathetic proxies -- Egypt, Libya, Pakistan -- it has done so by absorbing existing Islamist militants into its fold. In Afghanistan, the Khorasan Province is already capitalizing on the country’s historical struggle with Islamist and tribal factions. While it competes with the Taliban -- which benefits from their Deobandi and Pashtun roots in the local population -- ISIS has exploited personal and factional grievances within established militant networks, along with bribery, to co-opt defection. Former Taliban commander and Guantanamo Bay detainee Abdul Rauf Aliza defected from the Taliban and became the Khorasan Province’s deputy commander. Additionally, multiple commanders and officials of the Pakistani Taliban publicly defected to pledge allegiance to the Khorasan Province. By absorbing Taliban members and other Islamist militants into its ranks, ISIS has increased its human capital while gaining operatives with knowledge of Afghanistan and Pakistan’s unique histories, geographies, and socio-political environments. Notably, this method also masquerades as ISIS’s ability to “administer and manage savagery.”

While we cannot know whether ISIS will try to manufacture another caliphate after Iraq and Syria fall from its grasp, the organization’s promotion of territory as a central component of its brand makes it likely that ISIS will at least attempt to recreate its claim to divinely sanctioned land. Given that the international community was blindsided by the conception of ISIS’s first caliphate, the United States should rely on ISIS’s ideology for more than a rhetorical battle about terrorism’s terminology. By extending the tactics outlined in Management of Savagery to the battlefield, the United States and its allies may be able to prevent Afghanistan from becoming the next Islamic State.  

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