Afghanistan: Taliban’s Actions Will Help Decide Future of IS-K
Brian M. Perkins
As the United States and the Taliban are set to begin a partial truce as part of long-running attempts to strike a peace deal, Afghanistan’s other preeminent militant group, Islamic State Khorosan (IS-K), remains ambitious and still commands an estimated force of around 2,500 fighters (Benar News, February 7). Despite suffering significant losses in its primary base of Nangarhar in late 2019, a large number of fighters managed to escape through Kunar Province or the Spin Ghar mountains and into Pakistan and are looking to regroup.
The successful operations conducted by Afghan forces in Nangarhar in 2019 significantly disrupted the group but also illuminated the breadth of IS-K’s appeal and recruitment efforts. Among those captured were fighters from Azerbaijan, Canada, France, India, Maldives, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkey and Uzbekistan (The Hindu, February 11). There has yet to be a large-scale operation against regrouped IS-K fighters in Kunar, and the group is also still present in the north and west in Faryab and Herat Provinces (Tolo News, December 24, 2019). The Taliban was reportedly also involved in the operations against IS-K and had also ramped up operations against the group elsewhere in late 2019.
IS-K is no longer the imposing force it was in years past, but it retains a significant core of fighters and is still capable of recruiting new members, including those from outside of Afghanistan. The questions now are whether the Afghan government can, or will, conduct sustained operations against the group and what implications the tentative truce/peace deal with the Taliban will have on IS-K.
The Taliban, as a whole, has been a staunch opponent of IS-K since its arrival in Afghanistan. An increase in attempts to weaken the group have coincided with progress toward peace negotiations, a fact which indicates that the Taliban, too, is concerned about the potential for a peace deal further empowering IS-K. A deal could allow the group to act as a significant spoiler by drawing a large number of disillusioned Taliban members that are against, or do not benefit from, a peace deal. The Taliban has continued these attempts and most recently, on February 8, released a video depicting IS-K fighters surrendering to its members in Kunar (Jihadology, February 8).
An IS-K resurgence will largely hinge on the Taliban’s actions in the coming months and year. First, the Taliban’s efforts against IS-K have been critical to keeping the group in check, and there are questions as to whether the Afghan forces’ operations in Nangarhar would have been as successful if not for IS-K suffering previous losses at the hands of the Taliban. The Taliban could empower IS-K again if it resumes fighting on the same scale seen in 2019, drawing significant focus and resources away from the fight against IS-K. At the same time, progress toward a peace deal in the absence of significant gains against IS-K could leave the group in a powerful enough position to continue recruitment and the ability to draw in disenfranchised Taliban members at a particularly fragile time. Either way, the Taliban will play a critical role in what the future holds for IS-K.
Egypt Looks to Counter Turkey Across Africa
Brian M. Perkins
Egyptian President Abdel el-Sisi called for the creation of a pan-African force to combat terrorist groups across the continent during the 33rd African Union Summit in Addis Ababa and transfer of the African Union (AU) presidency to South Africa on February 9 (Egypt Today, February 9). Egypt is still struggling with a resilient Islamic State (IS) insurgency in the Sinai, terrorist groups are rapidly gaining ground across the Sahel, and East Africa is facing a growing terrorism threat. Sisi’s calls for a pan-African force, however, are not only security motivated. The move must also be seen in the context of countering Turkey’s involvement across Africa and Egypt’s broader attempts to reassert its influence and transregional leadership.
While Egypt’s time at the head of the AU was not universally successful, the country managed to accomplish quite a few goals, particularly by rebuilding relationships on the continent that were sorely strained by Sisi’s contentious rise to power—which is a key cause for Egypt’s stance against Turkey, as it gave refuge to the Muslim Brotherhood following the coup. Despite being on the Peace and Security Council, the transfer of the AU presidency to South Africa still somewhat lessens Egypt’s transregional influence and pulls the country back from the diplomatic forefront on African affairs. Cairo is undoubtedly keen to avoid taking a back seat.
Like many other countries, particularly in North Africa, Egypt has watched as international state and non-state actors have exerted increased influence and leveraged military and counterterrorism support to their geopolitical and economic advantage, often to the detriment of African nations. The conflict in Libya, and particularly Turkey’s involvement there, continues to deeply unsettle the Egyptian government. Turkey’s Mediterranean agreement with the GNA is demonstrative of the Egyptian perception of opportunities stolen away by non-African actors. The Egyptian government has made its disdain for Turkey’s role in Libya public and unconfirmed reports have indicated that Abbas Kamel, the head of Egypt’s General Intelligence Service, has visited multiple countries—which remain unknown—to forge military intelligence alliances to counter Turkey’s involvement in the region (Arab Weekly, February 18).
Looking beyond neighboring countries, Turkey’s presence has also notably grown in Somalia, another area of strategic importance for Egypt. Turkey maintains a military base in Mogadishu, where it has helped to train Somali soldiers. Like Egypt, Turkey has also signed memorandums of understanding to begin exploring for oil off Somalia’s coast, further adding to Egypt’s perception that Turkey is challenging both African and Arab interests in the region (MOPMR, February 12). Turkish President Erdogan even referenced Libya during a press conference about Somalia, stating “There is an offer from Somalia. They are saying: ‘There is oil in our seas. You are carrying out these operations with Libya, but you can also do them here’” (Al Jazeera, January 21). Further, there is ongoing tension over Somalia and Kenya’s maritime borders, a conflict that Egypt has been at the forefront of trying to calm (see Terrorism Monitor, July 12, 2019).
A hypothetical pan-African military force would serve the dual purpose of reducing terrorism while providing Egypt with the ability to bring itself closer to regional countries as a means to counter Turkey and boost its own influence within the region. While the likelihood of this force being stood up is seemingly slim, Egypt is likely to continue its efforts through multilateral meetings and partnerships, such as the country’s recent hosting of a joint meeting with Mali, Niger, Chad, Mauritania, and Burkina Faso, where Sisi once again reiterated his desire to push forward the creation of this force. The country’s efforts in the Sahel are both a response to Turkish involvement in Libya and a way to project regional leadership at a time when the country could fill the potential vacuum that would be left if the United States does pivot away from the region.