As ISIS shows growing signs of extending its scope and reach to Afghanistan, it’s leading to difficult new questions for Russia about how best to deal with this emerging security threat.

An Afghan National Policeman stands guard during a protest against the government's lack of action to try to find a group of men from the minority Afghan Shiite Hazara community who were abducted in February, in Kabul, Afghanistan, April, 2015. Tens chanted slogans against the Taliban and the Islamic State group who allegedly were responsible for the kidnapping of the 31 Hazara men and boys. Photo: AP

The start of officially recognized talks with the Taliban, sanctioned by Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, is in itself a remarkable event. But a closer look reveals a more curious underlying motive — the growing presence of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) is forcing the participants in the Afghan conflict to rethink their tactics and strategy.  

On the one hand, the chances of reaching an agreement are improving, but on the other, any arrangement might prove ineffective in dealing with the ISIS threat. All told, the complex fight against radical Islamism requires not just the intervention of a leading power, but also cooperation among several influential countries.  

Given the proximity of Afghanistan to the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia and Russia’s borders, Moscow cannot remain indifferent to Afghanistan, where ISIS is a growing menace. 

 For a different take, read: "Afghanistan: The real vs. imaginary threats to Central Asia and Russia" 

What’s behind Kabul’s call for conciliatory talks?

The dispatch of a delegation to Pakistan to begin talks with the Taliban was announced in early July by Ashraf Ghani himself. The announcement triggered numerous questions: Why in Pakistan? Why right now? Is it the recognition of the Taliban’s defeat or official Kabul’s failure? What common ground is there?

At first glance, the Afghan president’s announcement was not directly related to the increasing reports of intense fighting in eastern Afghanistan, where groups swearing allegiance to ISIS are battling not only the official Afghan army, but also units under the Taliban, which traditionally has a strong footing in the east. 

Against the backdrop of these reports, it is difficult not to be struck by how rapidly and effectively ideas and information spread in the modern world, taking physical form and forcing even the most powerful players in world politics to sit up and take note.

The explosive potential of ISIS

Just one year has passed since the official proclamation of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria. Even if one acknowledges that ISIS militants have proved themselves an effective force on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria, it is hard not to wonder at how quickly the idea of ​​ISIS has gained momentum among Islamic extremists thousands of kilometers from Iraq and Syria with no direct link to ISIS. 

It used to take groups such as Al-Qaeda years of toil to build a command and operational structure, which even then resulted in a fringe organization known only to members and experts for a long time. Today, however, after just one year, ISIS has the allegiance of both experienced groups (for instance, in Afghanistan) and lone wolf terrorist amateurs.

ISIS effectively exists in two forms — as a functioning terrorist proto-state and as the inspiration for a global alliance of militant Islamic fundamentalists. In the space of just one year, this idea has been sold all over the planet, attracting even Taliban members in eastern Afghanistan, who have turned their weapons against their former commanders and leaders in Qatar and Pakistan. 

Curiously, the news about the start of talks in Pakistan revealed a split between these two factions of the Taliban leadership — the Qatar group, until recently internationally recognized as the official representation, protested against what it saw as the machinations of the Pakistani intelligence services in the negotiating process.

Pakistan’s elaborate game

Needless to say, it is completely unexpected to see the Taliban criticizing the Pakistani intelligence services, which many consider to be the creators and chief sponsors of their movement. To all appearances, the Qatari faction either fears losing control over Taliban troops in Afghanistan, or has already lost it. 

Recently some observers (though not officially) in Afghanistan have voiced accusations against Islamabad that ISIS units on Afghan soil are just another project on the part of the Pakistani intelligence services, which have lost faith in the Taliban. If these allegations are true, Pakistan is clearly playing with fire: if the number of groups pledging allegiance to the “terrorist international” is on the rise, they are set to become a self-sufficient force, which will reduce the ability of Pakistani intelligence to control events in Afghanistan. 

In any case, Islamabad’s support for the talks between the Taliban and official Kabul testifies to Pakistan’s interest in stabilizing the situation in its neighbor.

Given that all sides in the region want stability in the country, it is not surprising that they are eager to sit behind the table: ISIS is a new player in Afghanistan, but one that could shuffle the cards. For ordinary fighters inspired by the ideas of Islamic fundamentalism and the struggle against the West, the contrast is plain to see: on one side is the Taliban, a regime which held out for just a few weeks against the international intervention in Afghanistan, and on the other is ISIS, which continues to expand its influence in a climate of general confusion and indecision on the part of both Middle Eastern rulers and Western capitals. 

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The common enemy

The reality is, of course, more complicated, but propaganda-wise the Taliban is finding it hard to compete with ISIS. Therefore, there is every indication that the consolidation of ISIS in Afghanistan is one of the main reasons for kick-starting talks between the Taliban and Kabul. 

These negotiations even have the backing of the United States, and U.S. officials are involved as observers, as too are Chinese diplomats. A quick glance at the map shows that the east of Afghanistan, where ISIS has a foothold, is a stone’s throw from Chinese Turkestan, where Islamic fundamentalists are not in short supply and ISIS propaganda is making the rounds.

As ISIS becomes more active in the east, the Taliban is consolidating in the north — the past couple of months have seen sporadic heavy fighting around the region’s central city of Kunduz. Eyewitnesses note that the ranks of local Taliban units are swelling with soldiers and commanders from Central Asia. If the appeal of ISIS spreads to the north of Afghanistan, the ISIS threat to Central Asia will rise sharply.

It is not surprising that since spring Tajikistan has been keen to draw the attention of its partners under the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to the need for more thorough monitoring of the situation in Afghanistan, and to keep the organization on high alert should the situation deteriorate. Russia has the final say on CSTO matters, and for Russian foreign policy the influence of ISIS in Afghanistan is a serious challenge.

The challenge is common to both Russia and China. Unsurprisingly, the situation in Afghanistan was widely discussed at the recent SCO summit in Ufa, the final declaration of which expressed concern about the rise in international terrorism, spoke of the intention to combat religious extremism, and announced support efforts aimed at establishing peace in Afghanistan. The process, launched at Ufa, of admitting Pakistan and India as SCO members could enhance the organization’s future capacity to address the problems of Afghanistan.

One should keep in mind that the circle of countries interested in the quickest possible settlement of the situation in Afghanistan is not limited to Pakistan, China, India and Russia.

Fortuitously or otherwise, the news of the talks in Pakistan coincided with an article in The Washington Post by General David Petraeus and senior fellow Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. The authors recommend not only abandoning the idea of ​​a near-total withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan before the end of 2016 (even U.S. officials are now skeptical that it can be done), but, on the contrary, increasing America’s presence in the country. 

Their argument is that without the United States, Afghanistan will become a haven for Islamic terrorists, including ones loyal to ISIS. Against the backdrop of events in Afghanistan today, this argument could resonate, if not with ordinary Americans, then with the decision-makers — never mind that the last decade has illustrated the limits of U.S. policy in the resolution of Afghan issues. However, in collaboration with the SCO or its leaders — Russia and China — the potency of U.S. efforts would increase significantly.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.