ISLAMABAD - Thousands of innocent people have lost their lives in US’s war on terror in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was the Taliban that the US and the NATO forces wanted to push out of the Afghan Capital. They did, but after being driven out of Kabul, Taliban still control large swaths of the country. The successive Kabul governments have not been able to ensure peace and stability in the country. The last couple of years have seen unprecedented violence in Afghanistan. Thousands of innocent people have lost their lives as a result of the power struggle between warring factions in Afghanistan. The US has entered in its 17th year of Afghan war with no end in sight. It has pumped in trillions of dollars to fight the Taliban. However, over the years more terrorist organizations have sprouted up in the country. Besides the Taliban, who target the Afghans, terrorist organizations like Jamaat ul Ahrar and Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan, have been targeting Pakistani state and people. Alarmingly, these terrorist organizations still operate in Afghanistan to this very day. Among these terror organizations, the deadliest in recent years has been ISIS. It is notoriously known for its brutal killing of Shia Muslims in Iraq and Syria. It now operates in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia, becoming a major threat for the countries in South Asian as well as Central Asian region.

In his recent well researched book ‘The Islamic State in Khorasan’ Antonio Giustozzi, delves into the study of ISIS presence in Afghanistan and the neighboring countries. Giustozzi, at the very outset writes, “This book is primarily a book about the transplant of the IS model to Khorasan, judged virtually impossible by several observers”.

Initially, the observers of ISIS thought it impossible of ISIS to have presence in Afghanistan. The policy makers and experts, primarily in Afghanistan and Pakistan, kept denying the presence or any strong hold of ISIS in the region. It was late until the January 2015 that ISIS formally announced establishing the branch of ISIS in Afghanistan, Pakistan, all of Central Asia, Iran and parts of India and Russia, Known as IS-K (Khorasan).  Antonio’s book is a timely document that brings into the debate the counter-terror efforts of US, NATO and Afghan forces as well Pakistan and Iran.

ISIS is seen as a rival of the Taliban in the region. Both ISIS and Taliban have been fighting on several fronts in Afghanistan. Even before setting up its cells in Afghanistan ISIS realized the threat and resistance that Taliban could pose to ISIS. It was for several reasons that ISIS had to put extra effort and resources to distinguish itself from the already prevailing Taliban. There are stark differences between the Taliban and ISIS that Giustozzi brings up while discussing the initial challenges ISIS had faced in Khorasan, and perhaps it still does. Among them the most important factor is the two opposite ideologies. The Taliban and ISIS follow two different philosophies. Taliban are predominantly Sunni Deobandi. These are the ideas of the renowned seminary in India, Deoband. While the ISIS follows the Salafi/Wahabi ideology. The majority of the people living in tribal areas of Afghanistan and the region practice the Deobandi school of thought. This has been one of the major challenges for ISIS. Among other differences, ISIS has also challenged the central authority of the Taliban and several splinter groups of Taliban have joined ISIS. These differences and struggle for power has kept the Taliban under check and many of the splinter groups who have joined ISIS have weakened the Taliban movement to some extent.

The most striking feature of the book is that Giustozzi has gathered the information from first hand sources. He has interviewed many of the Taliban as well as ISIS leaders. He connects the dots of how different events took place and how those events have changed the course of counter-terrorism efforts in the region. He deliberates upon the structure of ISIS and compares it with that of Taliban and analysis the future of both Taliban and ISIS. Giustozzi is of the view that unlike Taliban, ISIS is more organized with strong bureaucratic structures, ‘officer corps’ and hierarchies. So much so that it operates like a State. It has its own audit teams who visit the areas and monitor the funding for ISIS donors and how those funds are utilized efficiently. ISIS, backed by efficient monetary structure, has made its name out of terror and ruthlessness. One of the major supports that ISIS has got is the people living below the poverty line in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Poverty stricken areas are their special recruiting grounds. The nature of ISIS is mix of terror, poverty and crime.

One more important factor that has helped ISIS gain ground, according to the writer, is the Salafi Mullahs. The local Afghan clerics according to Guistozzi have been supporting the ISIS, though these clerics have been few in number but have effectively carried out the recruitment process. Since majority of the parts of the region are not in rapport with the Salafi school of thought, and have shown cultural résistance, ISIS has got its own trained cleric cadre which works parallel to that of the Taliban; trained in running madrassahs and small groups effectively.

The main target of ISIS in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been innocent people; Shia Muslims, Hazaras, Sufi shrines and other minority Muslim sects. They have also been active in abducting and kidnapping the Chinese workers in Pakistan. Though the Pakistani State has denied any organized presence of ISIS on its soil. But sporadic attacks have claimed the lives of many Pakistani’s, Afghani’s as well as Chinese workers in Pakistan.

Giustozzi’s book is an excellent effort to understand the proxy wars in Afghanistan and how these wars are having an impact on the region’s peace and stability. This is perhaps the first detailed account of the structure of ISIS and how it operates in Afghanistan and the neighboring countries. The book is timely as Taliban and US administration are working out for peace talks in Afghanistan.  ‘The Islamic State in Khorasan’ written by Giustozzi and published by Hurst and Company will help as a reference book for the students, policy makers and experts alike. The book certainly brings clarity to the subject of terrorism and its nature in Afghanistan and Khorasan. It is a brilliant mix of journalistic account and academic research.

–The writer is an Islamabad based TV talk show host with an interest in Foreign Policy and International Affairs.