Friday, November 9, 2018

‘Islamic State’ Forces in Afghanistan Not ‘Monster’ as Some Portray Them, Stolpovsky Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 8 – Many Russian and Central Asian commentators treat the forces of the Islamic State in Afghanistan as a powerful, well-integrated and tightly controlled military organization that can intervene in the countries of Central Asia at will and overturn the governments there, Oleg Stolpovsky says.

            But the independent Russian military analyst says that such an image of the IS forces in Afghanistan falls in the category of “fake news,” information that is disseminated to serve the interests of certain individuals and institutions but that has little connection to reality (

            With the defeat of IS forces in the Middle East, he says, some officials and many media outlets have pushed the notion that thousands of IS fighters have left that region and moved to Afghanistan where they have reformed as a unified and disciplined army in preparation for advancing northward into the former Soviet region.

            Such a notion may serve the interests of some officials by frightening the populations of the countries in Central Asia and getting them to agree to anything as long as they are to be protected from a horde of Islamist fighters emanating from Afghanistan. But it simply isn’t an accurate description of the situation, Stolpovsky says.

            “No one says that there are no ‘Islamic State’ militants in Afghanistan or that the widely varied ‘terrorist international’ isn’t seeking to go there,” he continues. “On the contrary, the Afghan direction as before is the most unstable from the point of view of external threats for the Central Asian region. Not to take note of this … would be an inadequate reaction.”

            But at the same time, the military analyst continues, “it is necessary to separate ‘the wheat from the chaff’ in considering the issue of the transformation of Afghanistan into a new base of ‘the Islamic State’ by specifying the size of the IS detachments there and the tasks standing before them.”

            The IS presence in Afghanistan has been noted since mid-2014, he continues, but significantly, reports about it in the form of the Vilayat Khorasan have come from Syria rather than from local sources, an indication that these reports were more about propaganda for the cause than a description of literal reality.

            And there are more problems than that. Many of those heading to Afghanistan resembled those leaving Syria and Iraq: they were heading home rather than transferring the international operation to Afghanistan. According to various estimates, from several hundred to a thousand such returnees went back to Afghanistan or Pakistan. They weren’t a new infusion.

            Moreover, Stolpovsky insists, both among these and among other militants who did come to Afghanistan were representatives of a wide variety of often-competing groups of fighters. They were no unified force ready to take orders from a single center or to march northward into Central Asian countries. Instead, each of the small groups had its own command and agenda.

            “No one knows” the exact number of militants in Afghanistan, he points out. Estimates range from 2,000 to 10,000. “Probably the truth lies somewhere in between.  But even if the real number is higher than the mid-point, this number means that the radicals do not constitute any overwhelming force but only can field “partisan” operational groups.

            Again, that doesn’t mean that they cannot cause trouble, but it will be difficult if not impossible for them to launch any coordinated and prolonged operation, “especially if they sense opposition of a stronger opponent,” as they would from the nation states of Central Asia and Russia behind them.

            They can certainly raise the level of terrorist activity in Central Asia, exploiting the domestic problems of the countries in that region, and such activity could lead to explosions within these countries but those domestic issues would be primary rather than secondary causes. The IS forces from Afghanistan won’t be able to create them where they don’t exist.

            Those officials and analysts who think otherwise are promoting their own agendas, the military analyst says, rather than offering an accurate picture of the nature of the problem. In doing so, they are unwittingly helping exactly the forces that they claim to be fighting against.

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