How American Politicians Use War as Commerce #MOAB
How American Politicians Use War as Commerce
Two US air attacks in July 2015 triggered the confrontation between ISKP and the Afghan government.
The Islamic State in ‘Khorasan’: How it began and where it stands now
However, the absence of any attacks by ISKP against ANSF and government employees during May and June 2015 begs an important question: if the Afghan government had already irked a segment of the Pakistani militants in December 2014, why did ISKP not show any signs of opposition to the government during the initial one and half months of its public presence?
While the Afghan government’s (casual) moves against the Pakistani militants apparently sowed the seeds of a divorce from December 2014, they did not seem to amount to a full unravelling of relations. What looks to have upped the ante came months later. Two developments in the first week of July 2015 seem to have been instrumental in triggering an all-out confrontation between ISKP and the Afghan government. The first was the unleashing of a series of deadly strikes by planes or drones by the US from 6 July 2015 onwards; the US air attacks coincided with security agencies in Kabul talking, for the first time, about the need to stop ISKP. On 6 and 7 July, three air strikes targeting ISKP in Achin killed dozens of the group’s members, including three of the most important leaders after Sa’id Khan. They were Gul Zaman Fatih, the second in command to Sa’id Khan, the ISKP military Jihadyar and the former TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid, who had been instrumental in liaising between the ISKP and the IS centre when the provincial franchise was launched.
Simultaneously with what quickly became the US’s air campaign (5) against ISKP, government officials from the Ministries of Interior and Defence announced that they were joining forces with the US in order to combat ISKP. The NDS also claimed credit for providing intelligence for the strike that led to the killing of the ISKP leaders. In the meantime, NDS announced the formation of a special unit made up of elements from all three security agencies (MoI, MoD, NDS) with the task of fighting ISKP.
The second development that unfolded in conjunction with the air strike campaign was a series of joint initiatives (if not outright uprisings) by the local population with the Taleban’s offensives against ISKP. In the offensives for retaking territory lost to ISKP in the southwestern districts in late June and the southeastern districts in early July, the Taleban managed to secure support from the local population. The support came from local political elites (including tribal elders), both those already sympathetic to the Taleban and those usually seen as pro-government. According to local journalists, some government officials did indeed incite (and possibly support) the local people to take on ISKP. True or not, ISKP, as inferred from its propaganda later, saw an active government hand behind the popular ‘uprisings’. The fact that ISKP was bloodied by the air strikes on one hand, and by popularly supported Taleban offensives on the other – both happening against a backdrop of the government’s security agencies talking of ANSF’s plans to fight ISKP – led to a turning point in ISKP’s attitudes towards the government.
Today, one year later, the US has stepped up its air campaign, especially after its designation, in mid-January 2016, of ISKP as a global terrorist organisation. The ANSF, together with local militias, have engaged more actively, at least in a number of instances, in ground offensives against the group. US and Afghan forces conduct joint night raids against alleged members of the group, and the Afghan air force has entered into regular ‘pounding’ of ISKP positions in Nangarhar. These developments, together with the Taleban’s unceasing and highly sophisticated campaigns against ISKP, have reversed the group’s initial momentum in Nangarhar. In more than one case, the fight against ISKP has even brought traditional enemies, the Taleban and the ANSF, together in Nangarhar. All this has enhanced the effectiveness of the battle against ISKP.
ISKP’s botched attempts outside Nangarhar
Before the Pakistani militants started operating as a franchise in Nangarhar, local groups elsewhere in Afghanistan also affiliated themselves with the IS in an attempt to be its flag-bearers.
The first verifiable news of an IS emergence in Afghanistan came from Helmand in January 2015, right in the centre of the Taleban’s heartland. The group suffered a first setback when their leader Abdul Rauf Khadem, once the second-most important Taleban commander from that province, was killed in a drone attack on 9 February 2015, less than a month after he announced his affiliation with the IS. It entered a pre-emptive ceasefire with the Taleban and ceased to grow. Fighting erupted again in late September 2015 between the two sides in northern Helmand, in Kajaki district, where the IS cell was based, and the 60-strong group was almost routed in two days of fighting. One sub-commander managed to escape to remote mountains further north in Baghran district. Since then, only one incident involving this IS cell has been recorded (for more background, see this AAN dispatch).
After Helmand, a group of self-proclaimed IS fighters emerged in Farah under the leadership of two disgruntled mid-level Taleban commanders. The Farah group, with over 60 people, was widely reported to be well-equipped and well-funded (while, as in other instances, the source of this funding remains an area of speculation). When the group was trying to expand its presence from Khak-e Safid district to other areas in late May 2015, the Taleban led an offensive against it, putting an end to the Farah cell as well. According to ISKP sources talking to AAN, the surviving commander, Abdul Raziq (aka Mehdi), later re-emerged in Nangarhar as a deputy to Sa’id Khan.
The third failed attempt outside Nangarhar was the closest to Kabul, in Logar province, with a mobile base in Khoshi and Azra districts. It was led by yet another disgruntled Taleban commander, Abdul Hadi aka Saad Emarati, who was officially ousted by the Taleban in 2013 but continued armed activities into 2014 in the Pakistani tribal agencies, as well as amid the Pakistani militants in Nangarhar. His men were reportedly involved in a few cases of sectarian targeting of the local Shia population in Khoshi between April and June 2015. This cell was eliminated in July 2015 by the Taleban, who laid siege to it. In the last moment before the Taleban attacked, Emarati slipped through the siege and fled to Nangarhar.
The fourth attempt took place in Zabul, and saw a bloodier end than the previous three attempts. The Zabul ISKP cell was made up of approximately 200 Central Asian (and perhaps North Caucasian) militants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) who had been driven out of their decade-long shelter in North Waziristan by Pakistani army operations in the summer of 2014. From spring 2015, they rebelled against their Afghan Taleban patrons who had helped them to settle among the Zabul population, and rebranded themselves as IS. In the summer of 2015, some of these militants left Zabul to join ISKP in Nangarhar, increasing the number of Central Asians there to more than 100; others left to northern Afghanistan and continued living with the Taleban. The remaining militants, including their leader Usman Ghazi, pledged allegiance to IS. In November 2015, the Taleban brutally crushed this group in clashes that lasted for a week (more background here; for an account by colleague, Kate Clark, of her probably encounter with Ghazi, see here). A small number of fighters who managed to escape the kill-capture fate fled to the ISKP’s headquarters in Nangarhar.
These four events either preceded ISKP’s establishment in Nangarhar or were unrelated to it, calling into question the Nangarhar-based ISKP’s claim that they represent all IS sympathisers in Afghanistan. When, however, the group in Nangarhar remained as the only surviving IS base in the country, it became an area of retreat for survivors from other provinces and later turned out to be the group’s only active stronghold.
ISKP has yet to see whether it can make a comeback in at least one additional province. At least two groups based in Kunar, one that belonged to a district governor of the Afghan Taleban and the other to the Pakistani Taleban originally from Bajaur, have defected to the IS. Most members of these two groups have been fighting in Nangarhar, but their influence back in Kunar seems to have allowed ISKP to establish some sort of a base, albeit not yet an area of expanding influence or control, in that province. Various sources have talked about ISKP training ‘camps’ in Kunar, but there have been no reports of any military activity in that province. So far, it looks as if ISKP might have deliberately avoided raising its profile in Kunar in order to keep it as both a rear area inside Afghanistan and as a ‘human resources’ centre for training, harbouring reserve forces and as a retreat. AAN has been told of Salafi fighters from Kunar leaving for Syria, as well as commanders sent to Nangarhar (where they have subsequently been killed). Indeed, Kunaris make up the third largest contribution to ISKP, after Orakzais (and their Afridi partners) and Bajauris. Further north, Nuristan province is another area of possible ISKP expansion. AAN has heard rumours of ISKP activity there, but has not been able to verify any of these.
From the northeast of the country, reports of ISKP sightings have occasionally been made from various provinces, most notably Kunduz and Badakhshan. However, there are no signs yet of any open ISKP activities in the north. Should ISKP have managed to establish a significant toehold in the north, this would not have gone unseen, especially after the Taleban adopted their approach of zero-tolerance towards the group.
What can, however, lead to mistaken sightings of IS in the north is the relatively abundant presence of foreign fighters and an array of smaller splinter groups, with local members and sympathisers, from or outside the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), like Jundullah, all of which fly black flags. They range from close allies of the Taleban (politically and ideologically) to those who have changed their minds and joined IS, but have yet not openly rebranded. This latter category seems to be waiting for an opportunity to slip away from Taleban control, in order to openly emerge as an ISKP northern branch. The only verifiable example of open ISKP presence has been two short-lived attempts by a single group in Eshkashem district of Takhar and Borka district of Baghlan last year (for more background see this recent AAN dispatch).
Another case of misreading is the mistaking of a non-jihadist Islamist group, Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), for ISKP. HT flies a black flag closely resembling that of the IS and calls for a global caliphate, but it was present mostly in urban centres in Afghanistan long before the appearance of ISKP. Officials and local (as well as international) media misreported HT appearances in Taloqan and Jalalabad last year as examples of IS infiltration of urban centres.
In terms of taking over territory, ISKP’s attempts to expand beyond Nangarhar have failed miserably. However, it does seem to enjoy an appeal much beyond Nangarhar and as far as Kabul in part due to the defection of militants who were previously Taleban, as well as to the presence of a more radical Salafi-jihadist cell in the largest urban centre in Afghanistan. There, it seems to be capable of planning and executing occasional operations against not so-fortified targets, with the help of local recruits, that can cause mass casualties, such as the 23 July 2016 attack. The prospect of ISKP establishing a territorial foothold in Kabul is, however, a distant one.