While media reports claim that a Taliban-aligned Islamic militant group is considering joining forces with 'Islamic State,' analyst Michael Kugelman explains to DW why it's unlikely that IS gains influence in South Asia.
Commander Mirwais from the Afghan militant group Hezb-e-Islami told the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) that if "Islamic State" (IS), which he called by its Arabic acronym 'Daish,' proved a true Islamic caliphate, they would link up with it. "We know Daish and we have links with some of its members. We are waiting to see if they meet the requirements for an Islamic caliphate," Mirwais was quoted by the BBC as saying.
The report comes as both Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan are facing political crises. Kabul is plunged in a political crisis with the country's April election still without a clear winner. While the two presidential candidates recently pulled their observers out of a ballot audit meant to determine who will succeed President Hamid Karzai, the Taliban are making territorial gains. This is happening at a critical time as foreign troops prepare to leave the conflict-ridden country.
In the meantime, Islamabad has been embroiled in political turmoil over the past several weeks ever since opposition politicians Imran Khan and Tahir-ul Qadri led mass demonstrations against the government of Pakistani Premier Nawaz Sharif, whom they accuse of incompetence and rigging last year's parliamentary vote.
Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, speaks to DW about the possibility of IS infiltrating South Asia, arguing that there are simply too many factors constraining a potential partnership between IS and the Taliban factions. However, he adds, the big fear is that Pakistani militants may strengthen 'Islamic State' in its Middle East-based bastion.
DW: How likely is an alliance between the Taliban and IS?
Michael Kugelman: I think it's highly unlikely. There are certainly ideological convergences between the two groups, but otherwise there are simply too many factors that constrain the possibility of a partnership, much less a close alliance.
First, the Afghan Taliban is chiefly an insurgent group seeking to overthrow the Afghan government. Though it is a brutal extremist organization, it has shown an interest in working from within the existing political system - this is clear from the interest some of its leaders have sometimes expressed in favor of negotiations to end the war.
By contrast, "Islamic State" is a savagely violent expansionist organization that aims to establish an Islamic caliphate. This is a very different, more ambitious, and more extreme end goal from that of the Taliban. Second, it is important to keep in mind that the Afghan Taliban has close connections to al Qaeda, the organization that IS split from. It seems unlikely that the Afghan Taliban would want to join forces with an organization that split from its ally.
Pakistan and Afghanistan are both facing political crises at the moment. Does this pave the way for IS militancy to infiltrate these countries and rally support?
Unfortunately, if there is one country outside of the Middle East where one could fear the potential penetration of Islamic State, it would be Pakistan. It is a country that has the presence of both hard-line ideological capital and militant groups that could encourage Islamic State's infiltration. Additionally, Pakistan suffers from the same kind of sectarian cleavages that have allowed the virulently anti-Shiite IS to exploit and deepen its influence in the Middle East.
That said, the Pakistani Taliban, the most dangerous Pakistani militant group, and the one that is most similar to IS in terms of its deeply savage tactics, is a divided and degraded organization that retains strong links to al-Qaeda, and has affirmed its allegiance not to IS but to Mullah Omar of the Afghan Taliban. I don't think the Pakistani Taliban has the ability or desire to serve as the facilitator of IS' entry into Pakistan.
There are reports, however, that IS has distributed pamphlets in the northern Pakistani city of Peshawar, telling people about their manifesto. Does IS already have some presence in Pakistan, and is it seeking to expand it there?
IS' demand for the release of Aafia Siddiqui suggests that the group has Pakistani members fighting with it in the Middle East, says Kugelman
There is no indication that IS has a formal presence in Pakistan. It certainly would have a rhetorical interest in expanding to Pakistan. After all, given its wish to install an Islamic caliphate, it would ideally want to take over Islamic nations worldwide. But I doubt the group has any immediate plans to expand to the country. It is busy enough in Syria and Iraq, and its next logical step is to spread its tentacles across the Middle East - perhaps Lebanon and Jordan - rather than all the way to Pakistan.
IS militants in Iraq had asked for the release of Aafia Siddiqui, the Pakistani al-Qaeda operative currently under arrest in the US, in exchange for the now slain US journalist James Foley. Is this evidence that Pakistani militants are supporting or fighting alongside IS in Iraq and Syria?
I think it suggests that IS has Pakistani members fighting with it in the Middle East, or at the least that the group has Pakistani members important enough to exert influence over the identification of the group's demands. This is because Siddiqui does not attract much attention or interest anywhere in the world - even among Islamist militants - outside of Pakistan.
There are various indications that IS could have some Pakistanis within its midst. A chief one was the revelation - albeit one that remains unconfirmed - that a top Islamic State leader killed in an Iraqi airstrike in recent weeks was from Pakistan, and had been based there. I believe, nevertheless, that the big fear here is not that IS will establish itself in Pakistan, but rather that Pakistani militants will strengthen the Islamic State in its Middle East-based bastion.
What would a potential IS-Taliban nexus mean for a nuclear-armed country like Pakistan and for the West?
It would be a nightmare scenario of epic proportions. You would essentially have one of the most terrifying militant groups to emerge in decades (and perhaps ever) joining forces with another formidable fundamentalist force. The good news is that nightmare scenarios rarely come true-and I think that will be the case here. Any nexus between the two groups will likely be ideological, and not operational or tactical.
Kugelman: 'Islamic State is a savagely violent expansionist organization that aims to establish an Islamic caliphate'
Are the Afghan and Pakistani governments aware of the potential threat?
They are certainly aware of this threat. I would actually argue that Pakistan's decision to launch a long-awaited military offensive in North Waziristan was rooted, to some extent, in concern about Islamic State's rapid expansion in the Middle East. Afghanistan's government is aware of the threat as well, though like the Pakistani government, it has more immediate threats-such as insurgency and acute political crises-to deal with at the moment.
Michael Kugelman is an Afghanistan expert and senior program associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, where he is responsible for research, programming, and publications on South and Southeast Asia.