Back in the days of Trump’s 2016 election campaign the US president made a pledge to his supporters in Connecticut, promising that under his command the Pentagon would defeat ISIS “very, very quickly.” Back then there was a lot of skeptical voices noting that Trump couldn’t possibly be up to the task.
However, since then, on-the-ground realities in Syria and Iraq have changed drastically. ISIS lost control of Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq in July of 2017. Three months later, it had to surrender its defacto capital—the Syrian city of Raqqa. Many fighters would then retreat to Deir ez-Zor in the country’s east which was next to suffer a crushing defeat.
Just recently, it’s been announced by US Vice President Michael Pence that the so-called Islamic State has ceased to exist, adding that in Iraq and Syria, where ISIS at one point in time used to control half of these countries’ respective territories, all of their former strongholds have now been reclaimed.
However, what Washington doesn’t seem to be willing to discuss is that there’s new reports emerging of ISIS militants attacking Central Asian states. According to an ABC report, a group of Western tourists became the target of a terrorist attack in the Tajikistani village of Dangara. According to eyewitness reports, a group of individuals stopped a car near unsuspecting foreign tourists, leapt out and slashed at the victims with knives before getting back into the vehicle and speeding off.
This unprovoked instance of gruesome violence is reminiscent of similar incidents organized by ISIS, including the vehicle-ramming and stabbing on London Bridge in July last year, which left eight people dead and 48 more injured, the Time notes.
Under these circumstances one can’t help but wonder – did Trump really beat ISIS? Or is it possible that the militants of this radical Islamists group simply redeployed to other regions of the world to carry on their reign of terror?
It’s been noted that ISIS has various affiliates dotting the globe. Some of them—its affiliate in Libya, for example—seem to have global ambitions and reach, while ISIS remains able to direct or, more commonly, inspire attacks in the West. Therefore, the notion that ISIS has really been defeated has to be carefully scrutinized before a final conclusion can be drawn.
In his interview with Focus, the president of the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Hans-Georg Maassen, stresses that the threat of ISIS shouldn’t be downplayed, even though this terrorist group has suffered considerable losses in Syria and Iraq, it still represents a major challenge for the international community. The defeat of the pseudo-state that ISIS warlords managed to create in the Middle East, forced them to recognize that what they now have is a caliphate without territory to control, that is why the Islamic State is increasingly engaging in various forms of asymmetric warfare. The above mentioned official has also stated that after the liquidation of ISIS’ main forces in Iraq and Syria, the militants began relocating their forces to the territory of other countries, including Libya, Egypt, and Somalia.
According to a series of publications in the Turkish newspaper Haber Turk, ISIS militants represent a real threat these days to a number of Caucasian and Central Asian states, according to various Turkish military officials. Turkish journalists are convinced that the main focus of ISIS these days is a strip of the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, as the warlords of the Islamic State remain convinced that by increasing their military presence in northern Afghanistan it will allow them to expand their influence across the region. That is why small groups of militants and mercenaries continue abandoning combat zones in Iraq and Syria on a daily basis, to then be secretly transferred to the northern provinces of Afghanistan.
It’s nearly impossible to pinpoint the exact number of redeployed radicals. According to a report presented by the Military Balance, there’s no more than 800 militants, yet Afghan security officers argue that there’s well over 10,0 00 ISIS militants deployed in Afghanistan, and they keep coming. The backbone of this force is built of ethnic Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kirghiz, Uighurs and other Central Asian nationals, who originally formed a part of the so-called Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan or fought in the ranks of Turkic brigades in Syria and Iraq. That is why these militants were able to freely travel the states of their origin, namely Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, all of which share a common border with Afghanistan.
Central Asia happens to be home for most of these militants, since back in the days when ISIS was on the rise it came to this region with the sole goal of raising new terrorist formations that would become a part of ISIS. Thus, according to unofficial reports, up to two hundred people have come from Turkmenistan to the Islamic State, another three hundred came from Uzbekistan, with Kyrgyzstan adding another five hundred militants. The latter has had its own struggle with religious fanatics for a while, who have been particularly active in the cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad.
However, experts believe that Turkmenistan faces the greatest threat of all of the Central Asian states, as its armed forces remain the weakest in the region, with no modern military equipment being imported by Ashgabat, and no military exercises carried out to increase the fighting capability of its forces. That is why this state is the least capable of addressing the threat that ISIS presents to the region.
However, things do not look good in Tajikistan either, which has slightly more armed forces that are tasked with the goal of guarding an extensive border this state shares with Afghanistan. The only remedy to this situation is a 5,000 man task force of Russian troops which keeps the border locked down. The request to allow Russian troops to patrol the Afghan-Tajik border was voiced by Russia’s president Vladimir Putin during his recent talks with his Tajik counterpart, Emomali Rahmon. According to a report released by the UN Refugee Agency, some 840 Tajiks have been engaged in armed conflicts across the Middle East. However, as the latest attack on foreign tourists in Dangara shows, the lingering presence of ISIS terrorists within Tajik territory poses a threat both to the population of Tajikistan and to numerous foreign tourists, the number of which exceeded 900,0 00 in the first half of 2018 alone.
Last May, a letter from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Uzbekistan to the US Embassy was leaked to the Internet. The content of this letter revealed how concerned Tashkent is with the rapidly growing number of radical militants coming to this country from Syria and Iraq.
The letter contains a formal plea to “strengthen the cooperation between intelligence agencies of the two states,” but its wording leaves no room for doubt that Tashkent is becoming frustrated with Washington over the inability of the latter to keep the situation in Afghanistan under control, which leads to an increase in terrorist activities in neighboring states.
The main goal of ISIS in northern Afghanistan is the creation of an armed force capable of conducting combat operations in a situation where it won’t have anti-aircraft, heavy weapons or artillery superiority, remains truly disturbing. It is also possible to exclude their desire to create hotbeds of armed confrontation in the immediate vicinity of the state border line of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan in order to exert political pressure on the leaders of those states by carrying out terrorist attacks or through the forceful seizure of military and civilian targets across both sides of the border of Afghanistan and the above mentioned states.
Martin Berger is a freelance journalist and geopolitical analyst, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”