Isis in Afghanistan posing new threat to the Taliban – and the West

Attacks by Isis-K have put group used to being the insurgents in a precarious position

Taliban police patrolling the centre of the city in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Photograph: Victor J Blue/The New York Times

Taliban police patrolling the centre of the city in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Photograph: Victor J Blue/The New York Times

 

Aref Mohammad’s war against Islamic State ended earlier this autumn when his unit of Taliban fighters was ambushed by the terrorist group in eastern Afghanistan. A bullet shattered his femur, leaving him disabled and barely able to walk, never mind fight.

But for the Taliban movement he served under, now the government of Afghanistan, the war against Islamic State was just beginning. “If we knew where they were from, we would pursue them and destroy them,” Mohammed (19) said from his hospital bed in Jalalabad, the capital of Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province where Islamic State has maintained a presence since 2015.

In the two months since the Taliban took control of the country, the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan – known as Islamic State Khorasan or Isis-K – has stepped up attacks across the country, straining the new and untested government and raising alarm bells in the West about the potential resurgence of a group that could eventually pose an international threat.

Aref Mohammad, a 19-year-old Taliban fighter, in a hospital in Jalalabad after being wounded in an Isis-K attack. Photograph: Victor J Blue/The New York Times
Aref Mohammad, a 19-year-old Taliban fighter, in a hospital in Jalalabad after being wounded in an Isis-K attack. Photograph: Victor J Blue/The New York Times

The attacks have been aimed mostly at Taliban units like Mohammad’s and at Afghanistan’s Shia minorities. Suicide bombings in Kabul, the capital, and in important cities including Kunduz in the north and Kandahar in the Taliban’s southern heartland have killed at least 90 people and wounded hundreds of others in the span of just several weeks.

And on Tuesday, Islamic State fighters carried out a co-ordinated attack with gunmen and at least one suicide bomber on an important military hospital in the capital, killing at least 25 people.

Law and order

This has placed the Taliban in a precarious position: After spending 20 years fighting as an insurgency, the group finds itself wrestling with providing security and delivering on its hallmark commitment of law and order. This has proved especially challenging for the Taliban as they try to defend themselves and civilians in crowded cities against almost daily attacks with an army that was trained for rural guerrilla warfare.

The surge in attacks has fuelled growing unease among western officials, with some predicting that Islamic State – often considered a regional threat – could gain the capability to strike international targets in a matter of six to 12 months.

Taliban fighters stand guard at a hospital in Jalalabad. Photograph: Victor J Blue/The New York Times
Taliban fighters stand guard at a hospital in Jalalabad. Photograph: Victor J Blue/The New York Times

Colin Kahl, US undersecretary of defence for policy, told lawmakers last week that the Taliban’s ability to pursue the group “is to be determined”. Kahl’s sentiments underline the core concern of western intelligence communities: There is little way to measure the Taliban’s effectiveness against Isis-K.

There is no longer reliable access to intelligence, as limited drone flights provide piecemeal information given the distance they have to fly just to get to Afghanistan, according to US officials, and the established network of informants has collapsed.

The Taliban, who have refused to cooperate with the United States in countering the Islamic State, instead are fighting the war on their own terms, with tactics and strategies that look far more localised than a government campaign against a terrorist organisation.

“The Taliban became accustomed to fighting as insurgents, relying on a range of asymmetric attacks to target Afghan and US forces,” said Colin P Clarke, a counterterrorism analyst at the Soufan Group, a security consulting firm based in New York. “But it seems clear that the Taliban has not given much thought at all to how the equation changes as a counterinsurgent, which is effectively the role they are playing now against the Islamic State.”

Taliban fighters look over the Mohmand Valley from an abandoned US special forces base in the Achin District of Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province. Photograph: Victor J Blue/The New York Times
Taliban fighters look over the Mohmand Valley from an abandoned US special forces base in the Achin District of Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province. Photograph: Victor J Blue/The New York Times

Bargaining chip

But where the Taliban have changed their strategy to fight against Islamic State – once working together with the Americans and the former government to contain the terrorist group in the east – is on the diplomatic stage. As the Taliban seek international recognition, the group has used the resurgence of the terrorist group as a bargaining chip for more financial aid, according to Qatari officials, reminding other countries that a powerful Islamic State poses a threat to them as well.

Recognising the potential threat along its shared border with Afghanistan, Pakistan is feeding some intelligence to the Taliban about Islamic State, according to US officials. The Washington Post first reported on this development.

Basir, the head of the Taliban’s intelligence arm in Jalalabad who goes by one name, is one of the group’s leaders adapting to fighting a war he was once on the other side of as a Taliban insurgent. He is now responsible for defending and securing a city of several hundred thousand people.

Vendors sell goods in an outdoor market in Jalalabad. Photograph: Victor J Blue/The New York Times
Vendors sell goods in an outdoor market in Jalalabad. Photograph: Victor J Blue/The New York Times

In the last several years, Jalalabad has been an easy target for Islamic State, which has dispatched cells of fighters into the city from surrounding districts, carrying out assassinations and bombings at will. But the group has taken advantage of the weeks during which the new government was coming together and has drastically widened its reach.

Between September 18th and October 28th, Islamic State has carried out at least 54 attacks in Afghanistan – including suicide bombings, assassinations and ambushes on security checkpoints, according to an analysis by ExTrac, a private firm that monitors militant violence in conflict zones. It amounts to one of the most active and deadly periods for Islamic State in Afghanistan.

Most of those attacks have targeted Taliban security forces – a marked shift from the first seven months of the year, when Islamic State primarily targeted civilians, including activists and journalists.

In countering Islamic State, Basir said his men had adopted methods similar to the previous government, even relying on equipment used by the former intelligence service to intercept communications and radio traffic – tools gifted by the West over the last two decades in an effort to surveil the Taliban.

Local support

But he insisted that the Taliban have what the last government and Americans did not: the broad support of the local population, which has been a boon for the type of human intelligence capable of alerting authorities of attacks and fighter locations that had always been difficult to obtain in the past.

A Taliban intelligence police patrol in Jalalabad. Photograph: Victor J Blue/The New York Times
A Taliban intelligence police patrol in Jalalabad. Photograph: Victor J Blue/The New York Times

That level of trust and cooperation could wane, security analysts say, as there is increasing fear that the Taliban could use the Isis-K threat as an excuse to carry out with impunity state-sponsored violence on certain segments of the population, such as members of the former government.

“There’s also a bit of a hubris and overconfidence because they think ISKP has such limited appeal in country – that, according to the Taliban, it is so beyond the pale that it will never have that widespread appeal, so they think they can afford to ignore the threat,” said Ibraheem Bahiss, an International Crisis Group consultant and an independent research analyst.

In 2015, Islamic State in Khorasan was officially established in Afghanistan’s east by former members of the Pakistani Taliban. The group’s ideology took hold partly because many villages there are inhabited by Salafi Muslims, the same branch of Sunni Islam as Islamic State. A minority among the Taliban, who mostly follow the Hanafi school, Salafi fighters were eager to join the new terrorist group.

The draw of young fighters to Islamic State is especially pronounced in Jalalabad, where Salafi mosques have sprung up in growing numbers in recent years, providing ample recruiting grounds for the terrorist group.

Young students read their lessons at a madrasa in Jalalabad. Photograph: Victor J Blue/The New York Times
Young students read their lessons at a madrasa in Jalalabad. Photograph: Victor J Blue/The New York Times

The Taliban have made a show of openness to the Salafists, accepting a pledge of allegiance from some Salafi clerics earlier this month. But there is still widespread unease within their community, especially in Jalalabad.

At one Salafi religious school in the city, the Taliban cracked down on the ideology by forcing the school’s founder to flee. They have allowed boys to continue their Koranic studies but have banned Salafist works from the curriculum.

Economic issue

For Faraidoon Momand, a former member of the Afghan government and a local power broker in Jalalabad, the worsening economic situation in the country is also driving Islamic State’s recruitment. “In every society, if the economy is bad, people will do what they have to do to get by,” Momand said.

As dusk fell over Jalalabad on a recent day in October, a unit of Taliban fighters belonging to the intelligence agency rode through the streets in a modified Toyota pick-up, a machine gun mounted in its bed, as the streets filled with commuters and evening shoppers.

The Talibs pulled up at key intersections and checkpoints, jumping out and assisting with the screening of cars and the ubiquitous yellow three-wheeled rickshaws that jostle and honk as they throng streets. They poked their heads in, shining flashlights inside, questioning passengers, and waved them on.

“We have a court for every criminal,” said Abdullah Ghorzang, a Taliban commander. “But there is no court for Isis-K. They will be killed wherever they are arrested.” – This article originally appeared in The New York Times

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