The ISIS Factor in Afghanistan: How Much of a Challenge for Russia?

The ISIS Factor in Afghanistan: How Much of a Challenge for Russia?

Around the world, including in Russia, discussions of the post-2014 scenarios for Afghanistan ranged from modestly pessimistic to apocalyptic. Reality fell somewhere in between the two, as patterns of continuity and change, typical of the Afghanistan problem, continued into the present. Continuity could be traced in the resurgence of the Taliban and the decline in international attention to the country. Change included Kabul’s halting and limited progress toward political transition, despite multiple hurdles, and new complicating factors such as the spread of the so-called Islamic State to Afghanistan.

The ISIS factor has introduced new internal dynamics to the conflict in Afghanistan (especially vis-à-vis and within the Taliban). Internationally, it also somewhat raised this conflict’s profile again and rekindled concern over ISIS influences in Afghanistan and the surrounding region, including Central Asia—both in terms of potential spillover from the ISIS presence in Afghanistan to the broader region and the troubles that could be caused by returning ISIS fighters. These issues came into prominence in the wake of several developments.

Outside Afghanistan, Omar Mateen, a U.S. national of Afghan origin who had claimed allegiance to ISIS shortly beforehand, shot 49 people at an Orlando night club on 12 June 2016. Two weeks later, three ISIS-affiliated attackers struck Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, killing 45 people; with one or two of the attackers reportedly of the Central Asian origin. In the same city on 1 January 2017, an Uzbek terrorist killed 39 at the Reina nightclub in an ISIS-claimed operation. Neither case, however, presented a clear-cut picture. In the first, the perpetrator was U.S.-born, a classic homegrown lone wolf who had also sympathized with both al-Qaeda and the Shia group Hezbollah (both of which are in conflict with ISIS). In the other two cases, the most critical factors enabling the attack were the relative space for maneuver that ISIS enjoyed in Turkey and its dependence on Turkish territory as a lifeline; the perpetrators’ exact nationalities were of secondary importance.

Inside Afghanistan, as the local ISIS branch appeared to be losing even some of its limited territorial base in the east of the country in the course of 2016, it started to switch more actively to high-profile, mass-casualty attacks, mostly directed against the minority Shia (for example, the July and November 2016 attacks on a rally and a mosque in Kabul, respectively, the October attacks in Kabul and in northern Afghanistan during the Ashura festival). This was a clear—though largely unsuccessful—attempt to instigate sectarian strife in Afghanistan modelled upon the main areas of ISIS operation in the Middle East.

Overall, the ISIS threat in the Afghan context, both internally to Afghanistan and externally for the region, appears to be even more hyped and manipulated than the al-Qaeda threat was before it. This is not to contest that it represents another complicating security factor, only to urge a more balanced and realistic understanding of it.

ISIS in Afghanistan

After 2014, the transfer of most security duties from the United States and NATO to Afghan authorities has further widened the growing security vacuum. This outcome was largely expected. Even as the Afghan government regained some legitimacy when its political crisis (sparked by the contested 2014 presidential election) got resolved with U.S. brokering, it has continued to lose functionality and reach. Afghanistan’s political system remains an unstable conglomeration of short-lived compromises between and within competing patronage networks, especially at the provincial level. Parallel governance structures are expanding, especially in Taliban-controlled areas, and there has been no serious progress toward a lasting political settlement. The task of the residual U.S. and NATO forces has largely boiled down to keeping Kabul and a few other areas relatively stable while trying to sustain the illusion of a functioning and centralized Afghan state. The Taliban has predictably seized upon the chaos, achieving some military advances in recent years.

Still, fears that the country’s instability would spill over into neighboring states had started to fade—until these fears were reignited by the phenomenon of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Arabic for “Levant”) or ISIS. Both in the region and around the world, concerns have grown that ISIS would establish a serious presence in Afghanistan and pose a direct security threat to Central Asia.

Although not totally groundless, these concerns are certainly excessive. They remind of the common myth, pervasive after September 11, that each and every radical armed Islamist group would undergo total “al-Qaedazation,” regardless of the context.

ISIS first appeared in Afghanistan’s eastern province of Nangarhar when Taliban fighters and other militants, including some loyal to ISIS, were driven across the Pakistani border by Islamabad’s Zarb-e-Azb security operation (launched in North Waziristan’s tribal areas in the summer of 2014). Since then genuine ISIS presence has mostly remained limited to eastern Afghanistan. Many critical facts about it—including the group’s ability to expand to other areas, its engagement in the fighting inside Afghanistan, its relations and collision with the Taliban, and its overall strength in the country—remain contentious and hard to ascertain.

Much like in other areas of intense armed conflict involving violent Islamist opposition, in Afghanistan it is extremely difficult to determine whether a given group really ascribes to ISIS ideology—by supporting the caliphate project and upholding a radical interpretation of Islam, including in methods of violence—or simply uses the ISIS label (ranging from pledging formal loyalty, or bay’at, to al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed “Caliph Ibrahim,” to sporting ISIS-style banners and paraphernalia). Clarifying this requires close monitoring and surveillance, beyond technical intelligence, as well as dynamic and in-depth analysis and field work—all very difficult to conduct in conflict settings. Most or all of this work is seldom, if ever, undertaken. Without it, buying into any “ISIS rumor” (to use the expression of the Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid) and taking it for granted risks elevating various militant elements, from marginal to opportunistic and predatory, to disproportionate significance in their respective local contexts.  

It may be more than a mere coincidence that Afghan officials first voiced alarm over ISIS in fall 2014—the time when cuts to U.S. security presence in Afghanistan were expected to be much more radical than they eventually proved to be. At that moment, doubts that American support to Afghanistan would continue in other forms had reached their peak. Whatever the real scale of the emerging threat, Afghan officials were highly tempted to exaggerate it in order to keep the U.S. engaged militarily and financially. As the former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald Neumann noted at the time, “the Afghans have every reason to hype this thing to keep us involved.”[1] Had that been the case, the ISIS element could be the final factor that, on top of many other concerns, led the U.S. and its allies to choose a less radical exit strategy than they had initially planned. Since then, according to Afghan and U.S. observers, both the Afghan government and the Taliban have conducted “expansive” operations against ISIS.[2], [3]  In January 2016, the Pentagon got White House permission to launch air strikes on ISIS in Afghanistan and carried out 70 to 80 of them in the first three months, mostly in Nangarhar.[4]

One way to make sense of inflated numbers of ISIS militants in Afghanistan is follow the advice of the German expert Tom Ruttig: take one zero off any estimate[5] of the number of ISIS fighters in Northern Afghanistan and extend it to estimates of ISIS’ overall strength by Afghan authorities or other governments in the region. For instance, if the Afghan National Security Council estimated the number of ISIS fighters in Afghanistan at 20,000 in 2015, the real number was likely closer to 2,000. Remarkably, the resultant number is close to the one quoted by U.S. Army General John Campbell, the former commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, who in March 2016 estimated the number of ISIS fighters in Afghanistan is between 1,000 and 3,000.[6] In August 2016, the top US commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, claimed that the original number of 3,000 ISIS fighters was roughly cut in half, standing between 1,000 and 1,500.[7] That was more or less confirmed by independent observers: in November 2016, Borhan Osman of the Afghan Analysts Network put the number of ISIS fighters in Afghanistan at 2,000 as the highest likely number ever.[8]

The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan has also been modest in its assessment of the ISIS threat, which its head Nicholas Haysom described as “insignificant” in 2015.[9] The following year, he confirmed that the ISIS presence “has been confined to a smaller area to the east of the country, following operations by Afghan security forces with support from the international military.”[10]

Most Afghan and Pakistani militants affiliated with ISIS, including key figures (such as Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost and Maulvi Abdul Qahar), were once dissatisfied Taliban members who either got expelled from or left the movement in opposition to the post-Omar Taliban leadership or due to tribal rivalries. Other members include militants originating from other Afghan Islamist groups, new-joining local youth, and a few Central Asians and Arabs.

ISIS’s strength and reach remain particularly questionable in Afghanistan’s north and northeast. In these areas, ISIS has been occasionally named as the prime culprit behind escalating hostilities and rising losses suffered by the Afghan military and security forces since late 2015. (Some reports even say that these losses equal or exceed those in the restive southern province of Helmand.) However, there is still insufficient evidence for any major role for ISIS in the north and northeast. The main insurgency force, in these regions and nationwide, remains the Taliban, along with its factions and allies. The northern rebel scene is a plethora of smaller militant actors from Central Asia and beyond, sometimes overlapping and partnering among themselves and with the Taliban, sometimes at odds with each other and with the Taliban. Labeling them all as ISIS—a tendency since 2015—lacks evidence and distorts the overall picture.           

On the one hand, Afghanistan presents serious inherent barriers to the spread of ISIS-style ideology of extreme Salafi jihadism. A leading one is the loyalty of most Afghan Sunnis, including the Taliban, to the Hanafi School of Islam. This school (including the Deobandi religious movement as its own fundamentalist form) is ideologically different from Salafism and contests the orthodoxy of the latter. Major cultural and language differences between Afghanistan and the Arab Middle East also pose the limits to the spread of violent extremist current whose ideologies are explicitly centered on the Near East. In this sense, ISIS simply cannot compete with the indigenous Taliban movement that grew out of the local Afghan-Pakistani context and has enjoyed varying degrees of local support since its emergence in the early 1990s.  

On the other hand, one should not discount the broader appeal of ISIS’s potent transnational propaganda, supported by its “lead by example” principle. Its self-declared but extremely well-advertised “caliphate” is a contagious idea with a physical, territorial basis and, at least until early 2016, a record of military victories. Besides, the so-called Khorasan Province—the Islamic State’s name for Afghanistan and Pakistan—has some special importance for ISIS. According to its apocalyptic ideology, the anti-Messiah would come from Khorasan at the time of the last “caliph.” (Al-Baghdadi is the eighth “caliph” out of twelve.) ISIS singled out the region in January 2015 by declaring the cross-border group Wilayat Khorasan its first formally recognized branch outside the Arab world.[11]

As President Ashraf Ghani accurately summed up in March 2015, “here, it is not the physical presence of people from Syria or Iraq. It is the network effect.”[12] Indeed, two main impacts ISIS has had in Afghanistan (and the Afghan-Pakistani context) go beyond territorial control. The first impact is direct: ISIS has forced the Taliban and other local Islamist groups to evolve. Its aggressive methods and modern information and advertising campaigns have caught the Taliban somewhat off base. They set new standards for violent Islamism and forced the Taliban to adjust its own propaganda, military tactics, approach to civilians, and treatment of prisoners. It is partly due to this dynamic that some recent Taliban operations have been marked by more demonstrative aggression and brutality. This radicalization of the Taliban—to outbid ISIS—has also continued since the movement chose Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhunzada as its new leader in mid-2016. In parallel, some other local Islamist groups marginalized by the Taliban but eager to rebrand themselves have looked to Daesh (the Arabic name for ISIS) for its label, ideology, and propaganda.

The second impact has been indirect but no less dangerous: the ISIS factor has been heavily manipulated by most governments, (rival) security services, and factions in and beyond the region, including in Afghanistan itself. 

Russia’s assessment of the ISIS threat in and from Afghanistan

Even those foreign experts and policymakers who try to understand Russian policy on Afghanistan in general and the ISIS factor there in particular often fail to grasp it. Their mistake is in systematically taking discourse and propaganda for reality (actual policy and decision-making) and confusing manipulation and instrumentalization with genuine interests and concerns. Outside observers frequently fail to distinguish between the first two and between the second two—an inability that is hardly confined to Russian policy on Afghanistan. It stems partly from the general lack of credible information on Russia’s foreign and domestic policies and partly from major ideological and political biases. The latter include a refusal to recognize new security and political realities in Eurasia and a tendency to reduce everything to familiar (post)Soviet and imperial categories.

In reality, the contrast between propaganda and Russia’s actual decision-making and policy may be quite stark, while the line between a genuine security concern and mere manipulation of a certain issue for the sake of more important strategic interests may be blurry. This is evident in three main aspects of Russia’s approach to the factor of transnational violent extremism in Afghanistan:

  1. Russia’s assessment of the ISIS threat in the context of the situation in and around Afghanistan;
  2. Russia’s comparative approach to the Taliban as opposed to ISIS;
  3. Russia’s take on transnational violent Islamist extremism in the Central Asia–Afghanistan context.

ISIS threats to Russia’s security

The ISIS phenomenon impacts Russia’s own security in several direct ways, manifested by the support for ISIS among radical elements in Russia.[13], [14] They include:

  • An outflow of radical Islamists from Russia to fight in Syria and Iraq. These recruits come from the North Caucasus and beyond.[15] Although their numbers are below those of European jihadists fighting for ISIS,[16] the risk of their possible return grows, as the ISIS territorial control and military potential in Syria and Iraq further erodes under parallel pressures from rival military coalitions led by the United States and Russia.

In fact, there are also two conditions that might make ISIS fighters pose a serious threat to third countries. First, many ISIS fighters “of the North Caucasian origin” had not actually come from Russia in the first place, but rather from various North Caucasian diaspora/émigré communities in the Middle East, Europe and South Caucasus—and that is where surviving fighters are most likely to return. Second, given harsh security constraints in Russia on returning ISIS fighters, the return rate of “foreign fighters” from Syria and Iraq to Russia has been one of the lowest among the main countries of origin (at 7.3 percent in 2015),[17] which may also push some of them to look elsewhere. This risk to third countries is well illustrated by the involvement of up to two ISIS jihadists with Russian passports, likely coming from the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, in perpetrating the attack on Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport on 28 June 2016, and the possible role of a Chechen émigré to Europe and one of the top ISIS figures, Akhmed Chatayev, in masterminding the attack.[18]

  • A series of loyalty pledges to ISIS made by many groups of North Caucasian underground (these pledges also undermined the leadership of, and weakened and drew manpower and resources from, the older regional insurgency umbrella movement Imarat Kavkaz).
  • A new marginal but growing phenomenon of small, self-generating Islamist extremist cells and individuals inspired by transnational influences and propaganda, particularly by ISIS, through either online radicalization, targeted recruitment, or both—comprising mostly Russian citizens in cities and regions outside the North Caucasus. While distinct from the violent North Caucasian underground that is still engaged in a low-intensity armed conflict centered on one region of the country, typologically, this new, fledgling phenomenon increasingly resembles radicalizing Islamist cells in the West. Like their Western counterparts, these cells demonstrate a mismatch between high ambition and low capacity to carry out terrorist attacks—something that even a handful of seasoned ISIS fighters returning from the Middle East could effectively help them to bridge.

In several cases, such micro cells have been reported to involve migrants from Central Asia. There is no evidence, however, for attributing this to a direct export of ISIS from Afghanistan. Doing so would downplay a more worrying sign—namely, that radicalization usually occurs not before but after Central Asian migrants arrive to Russia, i.e. during their stay on its territory (with little to no particular influence of the Afghan connection).

In sum, of the several direct security challenges ISIS posed to Russia in the mid-2010s, none have been primarily linked to Afghanistan as such. This raises questions about the sporadic signs of alarmism over the ISIS challenge “from the south” in some Russian media reports and public discourse. More importantly, it points to the Central Asian dimension as key to Russia’s security concerns over Afghanistan.

Alarmism vs realism

If there are any signs of alarmism in Moscow on the matter, they are either unofficial or infrequent, usually timed to high-level political or military events on regional security in Central Asia, such as summits of Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). One of the most frequently cited examples is the April 2016 statement by the Russian special envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov: “There are now 10,000 Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan. A year ago there was a hundred. This growth over a year is spectacular. … The Afghan branch of the Islamic State is definitely specialized against Central Asia. Russian is even one of their working languages… They are being trained against Central Asia and Russia.”[19] This claim far exceeded most other estimates of ISIS strength in Afghanistan and contradicted Kabulov’s own earlier assessments. In December 2015, for example, he described a “small group—maybe a hundred fighters or a bit more,” redeployed from Iraq and Syria to Afghanistan and augmented by some local ISIS loyalists, which hardly made Russia “overeager to send our border guards back.”[20]

There is no question that some alarmist voices prominent in policy debates, especially commentators and TV talking heads, genuinely believe what they say. However, their views are poorly informed. They tend to misunderstand the specifics of the ISIS phenomenon (described in the next section) and to conflate very different and often unrelated phenomena into one confusing message. A typical remark of this kind runs as follows: “Whereas the Taliban resists foreign forces and, hopefully, remains within Afghan borders, ISIS poses a direct threat to Russia. The fact that ISIS militants are already among us is evidenced by the latest operations of the FSB [Russia’s domestic counterintelligence service] against them in Moscow, Yekaterinburg, and Dagestan.”[21]

Alarmism, however, has never dominated Russia’s official policy discourse on Afghanistan and has little to no bearing on actual foreign and security policy—which is usually exercised in a far more pragmatic and realistic manner. Russia’s practical policy is driven by more moderate, no-nonsense assessments founded on focused, professional, and field-based analysis.

Back in December 2014, the lead Russian expert on violent extremism in the region, Alexander Knyazev, described ISIS activity in Afghanistan as “transitory,” coupled with some “stand-by control” and competition with other extremist groups for outside funding—not all that different from standard rivalries among violent actors on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border.[22] A year later, Russian officials calmly observed that ISIS did not actively participate in the fighting inside the country, except for some clashes with the Taliban, including for control of drug flows.[23] According to Russian experts, the number of Taliban fighters (and their close allies) in northern Afghan provinces was anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000 in 2015, compared to a mere 500 or so ISIS-allied fighters in May 2015.[24], [25] (Estimates of northern Afghan officials ran as high as 1,500.)

For Russia’s real policy toward Afghanistan, therefore, the importance of the ISIS factor in and of itself is limited. What matters more are its effects on, and relations with, the Taliban as the dominant force in the armed Islamist opposition, the situation inside the insurgency, and the conundrum of regional interests and implications. If ISIS affects Russia’s approach to Afghanistan in any significant way, it is by adjusting Russia’s thinking about the internal and regional setup. 

Russia, Taliban, and ISIS

Moscow has not officially opposed Kabul’s talks with the Taliban. In the post-2014 context, Russia even formally recognized that “defeating the Taliban by military means is no longer an option”[26] and improved relations with Pakistan as the main regional power with any leverage over the Taliban. In this context, reports that first surfaced in October 2015 about Russia’s limited direct contacts with the Taliban concerning the movement’s campaign against ISIS should have hardly raised an eyebrow. [27], [28] After all, apart from Pakistan, several regional and outside powers have pursued more active and frequent contacts with the Taliban; they range from the United States and China to the Gulf states. However, in certain regional and global media outlets and policy circles, reports (or perhaps calculated leaks) about Russia’s contacts with the Taliban landed like a bomb.

On the one hand, rumors that Russia and the Taliban have had limited communications are not groundless. In December 2015, Russian Foreign Ministry officials confirmed that there had been some contacts, confined to sharing information and intelligence pertinent to the fight against ISIS.[29], [30] The obvious rationale was explained by Viktor Vasilyev, the Russian representative to CSTO: “There are tensions between the Taliban and ISIS militants penetrating Afghanistan from abroad. So, from a tactical point of view, one should use these tensions, and it would be good if these two groups confronted one another on the territory that lies beyond our [i.e. CSTO] area of responsibility.”[31]

On the other hand, these rumors should not be blown out of proportion. The Taliban has downplayed such contacts (despite previous leaks to the media from its military committee), denying that it needed any help in fighting ISIS.[32], [33] And Russia has insisted on minimizing any necessary communications, stressing its firm commitment to the UN Security Council’s sanctions against the movement that it itself had helped impose (which prohibit things like arms deliveries).[34], [35] In sum, Moscow firmly supports authorities in Kabul, while also maintaining some contact with the Taliban on a security issue of declared shared concern to governments across the region—even as it strives to keep these contacts far more limited than those maintained with the Taliban by many other regional and non-regional powers.

In addition to this rather obvious rationale for limited contacts with the Taliban, it is worth mentioning two more motivations driving Russia.

The first is Pakistan, for which ISIS does present a genuine security concern. Islamabad sees ISIS as yet another force that could ignite and transnationalize militancy and terrorism in its own tribal areas. More importantly, Pakistan is wary of ISIS’s tense relations with the Taliban, which it sees as a conduit of its influence in Afghanistan. In this way, the ISIS issue has become another rationale for Russia’s ongoing rapprochement with Pakistan.

Another aspect is a more sensitive one. Much as many Western observers suspect Russia of manipulating and overselling the threat of transnational violent extremism (most recently embodied by ISIS) to persuade Central Asian states to rely on Russia and the CSTO for their security,[36] Russia also suspects the United States and the West of trying to manipulate the ISIS issue in Afghanistan against its interests. This view is also informally shared by some Russian officials. The perceived motivation behind such attempts (even if they stand little chance of succeeding) would be to remind Russia of its vulnerability on its southern flank and to divert its attention from other security issues or regions where it is more active and has higher leverage, such as Syria or Donbass. Some experts even wonder whether the purported ISIS buildup in Afghanistan, especially in the north, is real or is a covert way to pressure Russia and the CSTO along the Afghan–Central Asian borders.[37], [38]

Russia’s take on the ISIS threat to Central Asia

If Russia has grounds to fear the ISIS threat emanating from Afghanistan, the main reason would be its potential to spill over to Central Asia. There, in contrast to Afghanistan, Russia’s role, presence, and interests are large enough to merit relatively significant engagement, at least on the security side. But given that ISIS’s strength even inside Afghanistan is highly questionable, there is all the less reason to spread panic about its imminent Central Asian spillover.

There are four reasons for a more level-headed approach. First, the main challenge related to Islamist radicalism for all Central Asian states is not infiltration by ISIS or any other foreign (transnational) movements or influences. Rather, that challenge emanates from internal conditions for, and drivers of, various forms of protest activity—from non-violent upheavals, including semi-spontaneous disturbances, to organized violent extremism—and from the religious situation in each of these states. 

Second, as noted above, there is a tendency in Eurasia—especially in Central Asia, but also in Russia—to conflate all challenges posed by ISIS, regardless of their type, origin, scale and probability:

(a) The outflow of ISIS supporters from Central Asia (and Russia) to the core area of ISIS control in Syria and Iraq, and the potential for their return;

(b) The emergence of genuine ISIS followers within local populations, including in Central Asia and Russia (often on self-generating basis, but inspired by ISIS’s aggressive propaganda);[39]

(c) Perceived potential for direct ISIS spillover from neighboring regions—in this case, from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The tendency to conflate these three challenges stems partly from deep confusion about the ISIS phenomenon as such, including the centrality of a territorially-based caliphate to ISIS ideology and practice. Many observers fail to understand the extent to which this movement, at least at its peak in 2014-2016, prioritized the building of a model Islamist state in the Near East and luring other Muslims there over all other tasks, including physical spread to far-away regions.[40]

The most serious challenge of the three is indeed the outflow of many Central Asian radicals to Syria and Iraq (estimates range from 2,000 to 4,000) and the potential for their return.[41] [42] However, this risk needs to be calibrated. In proportion to the size of the region’s Muslim population, the numbers of ISIS fighters of Central Asian origin have actually been quite low. Compare them to Europe, for instance: Only one in 20,000 Tajik Muslims has gone to fight in Iraq or Syria, while for Belgian Muslims this ratio is 1 in 1,500.[43]

Moreover, Central Asia is among the least likely home regions for ISIS foreign fighters to return to, mainly due to harsh antiterrorism policies of Central Asian regimes. In the past, no Central Asian armed group that had migrated abroad, even to areas less distant than Syria—as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and its alleged splinter, the Islamic Jihad Union, had done in the early 2000s—was able to return; they all remained confined to their refuges in Pakistan’s tribal areas and northern Afghanistan. By 2016, even the relatively lenient Kyrgyzstan claimed to have arrested all 20 or 30 former jihadists who had returned home (and that number represented just 5 to 7.5 percent of those who had left).[44] So far Central Asian veterans of Iraq and Syria’s wars have actually caused greater trouble outside Central Asia, such as when at least one of the perpetrators of the Istanbul airport attack in June 2016 and the sole perpetrator of the January 2017 Reina night club attack in the same city turned out to be of Central Asian origin with ISIS experience. At present, Central Asian states have reason to be as concerned over returning migrants radicalized while working in Russia and Kazakhstan as they are over militants returning from Syria.

The direct threat to Central Asia from northern Afghanistan might increase somewhat in the coming years, as the outflows of jihadist fighters from Syria and Iraq grow under military pressures. Given the harsh security pressures at home, while some of the returning fighters would more likely prefer to go elsewhere (including Turkey, other Middle Eastern states or even Russia), some of them might choose to head for and concentrate in northern Afghanistan—a grey, unstable area close to home and populated by their ethnic kin.

Third, an excessive emphasis on ISIS as the ubiquitous source of all militant extremism in the region distracts from the more real, if limited, threats posed by numerous other armed groups already based in northern Afghanistan—including those originating from, and still tied to, Central Asia. They include, among others, the older IMU and the younger Islamic Party of Turkistan, the Islamic Jihad Union, the Hetob and Tas groups at the Turkmen border, the so-called Central Asia Taliban and the Mujahideen of Central Asia, the Uighur group Helafat, the Kazakh group Fatha in Kunduz, and the Kyrgyz Kalkaly in Badakhshan.

Fourth, the scale and type of real cross-border problems linked to militancy and instability in and from Afghanistan differ significantly for individual Central Asian states.

As of the mid-2010s, of all Central Asian countries, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan face more tangible security risks. By comparison, threats to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan remain limited, though still not negligible. The short Uzbek-Afghan border that runs along the Amu Darya is one of the world’s most heavily patrolled and best protected—its fortifications range from barbed wire to mine fields—and militants attempting to infiltrate Uzbek territory would have to enter via Tajikistan. Perhaps more importantly, the long-expected succession crisis following the passing of Uzbekistan’s decades-long leader, Islam Karimov, (officially) on 2 September 2016—the region’s and the world’s biggest worry in terms of its potential to spark a major internal calamity in Uzbekistan—went through rather smoothly. For Kyrgyzstan, a new internal destabilization remains possible, but it is far more likely to be sparked by cross-border interethnic tensions or clashes related to smuggling and other criminal networks. (Once sparked, however, turmoil could also stimulate some penetration of militants from the region, for example via Tajikistan.)

For Tajikistan, the main Afghanistan-related security problem is posed not so much by the Taliban as by various non-Pashtu ethnic groups embracing militant Islamism that are based across the border in Afghanistan’s Kunduz, Takhar, and Baghlan provinces (some of these groups include fighters from Tajikistan and elsewhere in Central Asia). Three larger movements in these regions—the IMU and the Islamic Jihad Union, which oppose one another, and the traditionally standalone Hezb-e-Islami—and not likely to cooperate among themselves. The local Taliban, which is loosely subordinate to the Quetta Shura and supported by some militants of non-Afghan origin, is fully preoccupied with fighting government forces, especially in Kunduz—and in that province, Tajikistan also maintains relatively strong border protection. All this leaves militants with little room or manpower for any major breakthroughs into Tajikistan’s neighboring Khatlon Region or advances toward its capital Kurgan-Tepe. (Sporadic back-and-forth movement of small militant groups and border clashes with armed smugglers do not count.) More likely risks include disruptions to cross-border trade, such as when the road from Kabul via Sherkhan Bandar and Lower Pyandzh gets blocked as a result of strengthening Taliban presence in Kunduz. Another risk is cross-border effects of any potential destabilization in Badakhshan on either side of the mountainous border there, which has always remained underprotected. All these risks could marginally increase in the event that more foreign fighters of Central Asian origin head from Syria and Iraq to northern Afghanistan.

These risks, however, must be seen in the context of the broader constraining effect of Russia’s military presence—its 201st Motorized Rifle Division is deployed in Dushanbe, Kulyab, and Kurgan-Tepe—and Tajikistan’s CSTO membership. The realistic and level-headed approach taken by Moscow and CSTO to Tajikistan’s security situation also plays a positive stabilizing role. As Vasilyev explained in March 2016, “we consider existing measures [on the CSTO side] sufficient to repel any ISIS threat from Afghanistan.”[45] To hedge against any increase in external risks, during Putin’s visit to Dushanbe in February 2017, Russian and Tajik presidents even agreed to use the capacity of the Russian forces already stationed in Tajikistan to jointly protect the border with Afghanistan—something unheard of since Russian border forces had withdrawn from the area in 2005 at Tajikistan’s request. At the less public level, few Russian decision-makers would disagree that Tajikistan’s most critical threats arise from its internal politics, including President Rakhmon’s growing obsession with removing real and perceived rivals, rather than external military pressures.

For Turkmenistan, the security situation on its porous 750 kilometer–long border with Afghanistan has become more precarious in recent years. Russia’s views on this problem are two-fold. On the one hand, Turkmenistan has stubbornly maintained its neutrality and is neither an CSTO ally nor a key economic partner of Russia’s, so its security should not be a primary consideration. (In fact, the two states were recently involved in an ill-tempered gas dispute.) On the other hand, the country’s actions have been aggravating Russia’s security concerns in broader Central Asia. In 2015 Ashkhabad rejected Moscow’s offer to support its border protection efforts, despite the fact that security had been deteriorating on both sides of the border, including in Turkmenistan’s Mary Province. Russia sees these areas as one of the most probable routes for a direct “export of instability” from Afghanistan.

Even in the Turkmenistan case, however, the threat of an Islamist cross-border breakthrough may be somewhat exaggerated. For almost two and a half decades, Ashkhabad has managed to maintain pragmatic working relations with both Kabul and the Taliban. More recently, the latter has even reportedly extended a tacit welcome to Afghan Turkmens to help protect the trans-Afghan TAPI (Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India) gas pipeline. This calls into question the Taliban eagerness to attack Turkmenistan’s main gas-rich regions.[46]


All of this is not to suggest there are no voices of alarm in Russia about ISIS in Afghanistan, nor that Russia does not instrumentalize the ISIS issue to advance its own security and strategic interests, much like other powers in and out of the region. These interests are centered on ensuring its role and influence in Central Asia and preventing any major destabilization of this neighboring region. Nor does this mean there are no security threats to Tajikistan or Central Asia stemming from Afghanistan, whether or not they are linked to ISIS. While not high at present, security risks for Central Asia from northern Afghanistan might moderately increase in coming years, due to the potential return of Central Asian ISIS fighters to that area.

At the end of the day, however, Russian decision-making on Afghanistan is dominated by pragmatists who recognize that Afghanistan is not the prime source of ISIS or other terrorist threats for Russia. Addressing the potential for cross-border spillover of militancy, extremism, and instability from Afghanistan to Central Asia remains one of Russia’s two key security concerns vis-à-vis Afghanistan—along with the second objective of combatting drug traffic. In this regard, when it comes to both the ISIS factor and other issues, Russia’s strategy centers on intensifying security cooperation with its CSTO partners Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and promoting stability in two other major states, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

More broadly, Russia’s relatively proactive security course on Central Asia will continue to develop alongside, and in contrast to, Moscow’s strategy of keeping its distance from Afghanistan itself. This policy ensures that Russia runs no risk of becoming directly involved there on security matters (short of limited military assistance such as arms deliveries to the Afghan military and security forces). It also blocks any external attempts to drag Russia into a larger engagement in the region than is merited by its interests in Central Asia, including by playing up the threat of violent extremism. After all, Russia itself excels at using this tool when strategic interests so demand.

As for improving security inside Afghanistan, Russia appears to be gradually losing interest in the U.S. and Western residual role while intensifying cooperation with all major regional players—and it has no alternative to relying on whatever governance structures, de jure and de facto, are in place in Afghanistan. This explains Moscow’s genuine interest in the survival and increased functionality and legitimacy of the Afghan state. In the long term, this goal can only be achieved through a combination of two processes: political stabilization at the national level through a power-sharing arrangement, including with more moderate and Afghanistan-centered elements of the insurgency, and more consolidated efforts by domestic, regional, and international actors to combat transnational violent extremism, including groups inspired by or affiliated with ISIS in Afghanistan and Pakistan.



Editor’s note: Dr. Ekaterina Stepanova heads the Peace and Conflict Studies Unit at the National Research Institute of the World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) in Moscow, focusing on armed conflicts, terrorism and insurgencies, conflict management, peace-building and the political economy of conflicts. She is also a professor at the Russian Academy of Sciences.




[1] Hodge N., Stancati M., “Afghans sound alarm over Islamic State recruitment,” Wall Street Journal, 13 October 2014.

[2] McFate J., Denaburg R., Forrest C., Afghanistan Threat Assessment: the Taliban and ISIS, Institute for the Study of War Backgrounder, 10 December 2015.  

[3] Daud M., Afghanistan: Overview of Sources of Tension with Regional Implications—2015 (Barcelona: CIDOB, 2016).

[4] According to Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland, chief of communications for the coalition. Department of Defense Press Briefing by General Cleveland via teleconference from Afghanistan. Press Operations, News Transcript, 14 April 2016.

[5] Tom Ruttig speaking on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL): “The Black flag south of the Amu-Darya,” RFE/RL, 17 March 2015.

[6] Quoted in Aman F., Peace with Taliban Could Stem ISIS Growth in Afghanistan, 2 March 2016,

[7] Quoted in: “Most Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan are TTP men: top US commander,” The Express Tribune [Pakistan], 1 August 2016.

[8] Quoted in “ISIS in Afghanistan: ‘Their peak is over, but they are not finished’,” The Guardian, 18 November 2016.

[9] “Special Representative of the UN Secretary General: the IS so far does not threaten Afghanistan,” RIA-Novosti, 29 December 2015,

[10] “Survival will be an achievement for new Afghan Government, says UN envoy,” UN News Centre, 15 March 2016.

[11] Audio Statement by IS Spokesman Abu Muhammad al-’Adnani as-Shami, “Die in your Rage,” al-Furqan,

26 January 2016. The former Pakistani Taliban chief for Orakzai tribe, Hafiz Saeed Khan, was designated as a head of ISIS’s “Khorasan Province.”

[12] “Ghani acknowledges ISIS (Daesh) gaining influence in Afghanistan,” Khaama Press, 21 March 2015.

[13] See Stepanova E., The “Islamic State” as a Security Problem for Russia: the Nature and Scale of the Threat. PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo № 393. October 2015,

[14] Stepanova E., North Caucasus—a Wall Against or a Bridge for “Islamic State”? Russian International Affairs Council Analysis, 3 July 2015,

[15] Director of Russia’s Federal Security Service Aleksandr Bortnikov, speaking at the meeting of National Antiterrorism Committee, 25 December 2015, put the number of Russian citizens fighting in Syria and Iraq at 2900: quoted in Rosbisnessconsulting (RBC), 25 Dec. 2015,

[16] At the end of 2015, there were approximately 5000 jihadist fighters from the European Union states in Syria and Iraq. Foreign Fighters: An Updated Assessment of the Flow of Foreign Fighters into Syria and Iraq (New York: The Soufan Group, Dec. 2015), pp. 7–10,

[17] According to Director of Russia’s Federal Security Service, Alexander Bortnikov, as of the end of 2015, only 214 out of 2900 ISIS fighters from Russia have returned from Syria and Iraq (quoted by TASS news agency, 15 December 2015). This could be compared, for instance, to almost 50 percent return rate for the foreign fighters from the UK at the same time (CONTEST: The United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering Terrorism: Annual Report for 2015, Presented to Parliament by the Secretary of State for the Home Department, CM9310, July 2016, p. 7).

[18] “Erdogan announces Istanbul airport attack terrorists’ nationalities,” Sputnik, 05 July 2016,; Karimi F., Almasy S., “Istanbul airport attacks: planner, 2 mobmbers identified, report says,” CNN News, 2 July 2016.

[19] Press-conference, “Russia Today” information agency, Moscow, 19 April 2016.

[20] Interview to INTERFAX news agency on the occasion of the end of NATO combat mission in Afghanistan: “Zamir Kabulov: foreign forces are leaving Afghanistan at an extremely moment,” INTERFAX, 29 December 2015,

[21] Interview with senator Igor Morozov, “Afghanistan should become a priority for Russia,” Izvestia, 5 April 2016,

[22] Summary of a closed situation analysis on “Evolving situation in Northern Afghanistan in the mid-term perspective,” organized by A. Knyazev Public Foundation and REGNUM Information Agency in Tashkent on 15 December 2014:

[23] 6th meeting of the Joint US-Russia Working Group on the Afghan Narcotrafficking, 6 October 2015, Moscow.

[24] Mukhin V., “CSTO forces are ready to counter the Islamists,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta, 20 May 2015.

[25] Serenko A., “Questioning the future of the Caliphate: the prospects and difficulties of the “Islamic state” advance to the east,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta, 22 May 2015.

[26] “Interview by Special representative of the President on Afghanistan, Head of the Second Asia department of the Russian MFA, Z. N. Kabulov, to TASS Information Agency, 29 December 2015,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Information Note, 30 December 2015.

[27] “Russia has communication channel with the Taliban: foreign ministry official,” Sputnik International, 26 October 2015.

[28] Yusafzai S., “a Taliban-Russia team-up against ISIS?,” The Daily Beast, 26 Oct. 2015.

[29] “Zamir Kabulov: the Taliban’s interest in fighting the ISIS objectively coincides with Russia’s interests,”  INTERFAX, 12 Dec. 2015.

[30] An interview with the Russian MFA spokeswoman Maria Zakharova: Roth A., “Russia is sharing information with the Taliban to fight the Islamic State,” The Washington Post, 23 Dec. 2015.

[31] “Viktor Vasilyev: ‘We consider existing measures sufficient to repel any ISIS threat from Afghanistan’,” “Arms of Russia” information agency, 29 March 2016.

[32] “Taliban denies sharing ISIL intelligence with Russia,” Al-Jazeera, 26 December 2015.

[33] “Russia has communication channel with the Taliban: foreign ministry official,” Sputnik International, 26 October 2015.

[34] Roth A., “Russia is sharing information with the Taliban to fight the Islamic State” (note 26).

[35] “Viktor Vasiliyev: ‘We consider existing measures sufficient to repel any ISIS threat from Afghanistan’” (note 27).

[36] Standish R., “Putin to Central Asia: daddy save you from Islamic State,” Foreign Policy, 11 June 2015.

[37] Review of the round table on “The evolving situation in Afghanistan in 2016” at the Russian Foreign Affairs Council, 18 April 2016, in Puti k miru i bezopasnosti [“Pathways to Peace and Security”], no. 1(50), May 2016, pp. 132–134,

[38] Some even suggest that some of the fighters were transported to the northern provinces by “military helicopters without insignia” from the south/east of Afghanistan: Discussions at the 6th meeting of the Joint US-Russia Working Group on the Afghan Narcotrafficking, 6 October 2015.

[39] It is still to be verified if the 5 June 2016 attacks on two gun stores and a military unit in Aktobe (Kazakhstan) were of this homegrown/ISIS-inspired type or fell under the purely internal category.

[40] See Stepanova E., “Regionalization of violent jihadism and beyond: the case of Daesh,” in The Interdisciplinary Journal on Religion and Transformation in Contemporary Society, no. 3: Religious Fundamentalism (June 2016), pp. 30–55,

[41] Foreign Fighters, p. 15,

[42] Syria Calling: Radicalisation in Central Asia, International Crisis Group (ICG) Europe and Central Asia Briefing no. 72 (Brussels: ICG, January 2015), p. 3.

[43] Calculation by Edward Lemon, University of Exeter, quoted in: Standish R., “Putin to Central Asia” (note 32).

[44] Country Reports on Terrorism 2015 (Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of State Bureau on Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism, 2016),

[45] “Viktor Vasiliyev: ‘We consider existing measures sufficient to repel any ISIS threat from Afghanistan’” (note 27).

[46] As suggested by some Russian experts, the United States may be interested in building up the threat of a cross-border spill-over of militancy from Afghanistan to Turkmenistan to also acquire an additional leverage on  President Berdymukhamedov (e.g., to push for the Shevron and other US companies’ access to Galkynysh gas field on terms favorable to the US, as a precondition for the start of the construction of the trans-Afghan part of TAPI). Panfilova V., [“Ashkhabad does not let the Afghan refugees in”], Nezavisimaya Gazeta, 22 May 2015.