You know a situation is bad when you just can’t think of adjectives to describe it. You know a situation is really bad when whatever you try to do ends up either being insufficient or wrong. You know a situation is really really bad it keeps worsening as you lower your targets for progress.You know a situation is forget about it bad when you can’t even say forget about it.
We are talking about where it began, the forlorn barren land at the crossroads of Middle East & Central Asia, the land where positive dreams come to die, the land where bad dreams find fertile ground, the land called Afghanistan.
President Trump came to power vowing to destroy ISIS. The focus of the Trump Administration was ISIS in Syria. Fortunately for them, the situation on the ground in Syria was already on the upswing thanks mainly to the ground forces of Hezbollah & Iran and the air power of Russia. The Trump administration was smart enough to come to a tacit understanding with Russia, sensible enough to accept Assad staying in power and decisive enough to keep Turkey out of the conflict. Thanks to all that, Syria-Iraq seem to be on the mend with ISIS running out of Syria and going underground in Iraq.
Remember what happens with water? You stop the flow at one place and water seamlessly flows into another place. That is what is happening with ISIS. Remember our dictum since the outbreak of ISIS in Syia? That there is a one continuous theater of war from Damascus to Kabul, from Syria to Afghanistan. Unfortunately very few in America recognized this & so America kept making the same mistakes in Syria-Iraq that were made in Afghanistan (see Rinse & Repeat – Levant-i-Stan on June 14, 2014).
Now water has reversed its flow and is now flowing back into Afghanistan from Syria. That poses a terrible dilemma for the Trump Administration. Look how quickly the situation had deteriorated in Afghanistan:
- October 2016 – Afghan Government begins staring at the Abyss with the Taleban targeting regional capitals in Afghanistan;
- April 2017 – Russia begins helping the Taleban out of fear of ISIS
- May 2017 – US change in policy in Afghanistan – Realization that there is nothing the US can do to turn things around – Secretary Mattis redefines US mission to eradicating ISIS from Afghanistan and not necessarily fighting Taleban – this limited mission expected to facilitate withdrawal from Afghanistan with honor & face.
Remember water flows faster than all attempts to stop it. And the water we speak of is the flow of transnational jihadi caliphate of ISIS. Read what Kamran Bokhari of Geopolitical Futures wrote this week:
- “The story on the Islamic State for months has been how it is losing ground in the Middle East, but in Afghanistan, IS is expanding its operational reach. Though the Taliban are still the dominant jihadist group in the country, their nationalist jihadist agenda is losing ground to the Islamic State’s transnational jihadism.”
The Taleban have always been focused on Afghanistan & their mission has been removal of foreign forces from their land. They may have given refuge to other Islamic groups like Al-Qaeda but their central mission has always been nationalistic Afghan. This is why the Taleban movement never expanded out of Afghanistan into Central Asia or even into the non-Pushtun areas of NaPakistan.
ISIS is completely different. The ISIS goal has always been a transnational caliphate & that is why they have moved from one country to another in search of followers & land assets. ISIS cannot succeed in Afghanistan without defeating or at least fighting the Taleban for a portion of Afghanistan.
Our expectation was that the strength & the roots of the Taleban in Afghanistan would enable them to decisively defeat ISIS inside Afghanistan.That is why we are so perturbed at what Kamran Bokhari reported this week. We tend to believe his analysis because the Pushtuns historically have always sided with the winning side & the most stridently jihadi side. Secondly as we all know and as Bokhari points out, the Taleban movement has splintered into different groups & has suffered for lack of one leader all factions could support & obey.
This is so reminiscent of early jihadi Syria. The early winners were supposed to be the rebel factions supported by Saudi Arabia or Qatar. They were better funded and had greater outside support. But the emerging ISIS proved more lethal, more determined & simply more jihadi. Slowly but surely fighters from other Syrian jihadi groups began joining ISIS and soon ISIS became dominant.
What turned the tide in Syria was the entry of the Shiite Hezbollah backed by Iranian forces. The fight with ISIS in Syria was an existential fight for Hezbollah because their life line to Iran depended on the survival of the Assad regime. The Hezbollah & Iranian forces fought ISIS to a standstill in Syria and began winning against ISIS after the entry of Russia’s airpower.
What if the ISIS story repeats in Afghanistan? What if Taleban fighters begin to leave the Taleban to join ISIS? Arms from Russia & money from Iran won’t help the Taleban if their own fighters begin deserting them in favor of ISIS especially when the call goes out to fight the apostate Shias & the hated Shia regime of Iran.
This has to be a nightmare for Iran. Just as they could breathe easier after the defeat of ISIS in Iraq & the steady disintegration of ISIS in Syria, they face a resurgent ISIS on their eastern flank, a vulnerable flank they have ignored for decades.
Russia has to be equally concerned because ISIS in Afghanistan exposes Russia’s vulnerable underbelly in Central Asia. As Bokhari points out, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan & Turkmenistan are ripe for the ISIS call. And that further exposes Iran to ISIS. Remember the worst defeats of Iran have come at the hands of invaders from Central Asia beginning from Genghis Khan to Timur the Lame.
The entry of ISIS is also deeply problematic for the Trump Administration. Withdrawal from Afghanistan could backfire just as the premature withdrawal from Iraq backfired on the Obama Administration. On the other hand, sending more troops into Afghanistan is just as unpalatable for an administration that wants a win & not get trapped in there for another 8 years.
And unlike in Syria & Iraq, there are no positives in Afghanistan. Unlike the Iraqi government, the Afghan government is virtually non-existent outside Kabul. Unlike the Assad regime in Syria, there isn’t an Afghan minority regime which is determined to survive & around whom the non-Pushtun minorities can coalesce. Unlike in Syria, there is no anti-Sunni lethal force like Hezbollah in Afghanistan. And unlike in Iraq, there are no Shia militias in Afghanistan.
So, as Kamran Bokhari points out, the only conflict in Afghanistan is between two Sunni Jihadi extremists – the Taleban who want a pure Sunni Islamic emirate inside Afghanistan & ISIS which envisions an even more extremist transnational Islamic caliphate in Central Asia & the Indian Subcontinent.
Does that mean the Taleban are now the good guys? Does that mean the US forces who have spent the last 16 years killing the Taleban now must switch to protecting the Taleban from ISIS?
As we said there are no positives in Afghanistan. Wasn’t Syria simple in retrospect?
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