Fears in Afghanistan over ISIS gaining from US-Taleban deal

A banner with pictures of victims of last Saturday's wedding party bombing in Kabul, which was claimed by ISIS. Afghan officials say ISIS has been reduced to staging suicide attacks against "soft" targets, but border province leaders say ISIS forces
A banner with pictures of victims of last Saturday's wedding party bombing in Kabul, which was claimed by ISIS. Afghan officials say ISIS has been reduced to staging suicide attacks against "soft" targets, but border province leaders say ISIS forces continue to terrorise villagers in areas under their control. PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

KABUL • The official government line in the Afghan capital is that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has been defeated.

The local branch of the extremist Sunni militia, Afghan officials say, has been corralled into a mountainous area near the Pakistan border by Afghan and US forces and can no longer control populated areas.

They say ISIS has been reduced to staging suicide attacks against "soft" targets, such as the wedding party bombing in Kabul last Saturday that killed at least 80.

"We have eliminated their bases in the east and they are concentrated in very small areas. They cannot fight our forces face to face," said Afghan Defence Ministry spokesman Fawad Aman on Tuesday.

But local leaders in the border provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar tell a different story. They say ISIS forces continue to terrorise villagers in areas under their control, forcibly recruiting boys and banning girls from school.

The local leaders and US officials say Taleban and ISIS forces have continued to fight each other, but that they also fear some Taleban fighters will join the more ruthless ISIS forces if Taleban leaders make a deal with US officials.

The US and the Taleban have been holding talks on an initial agreement for months. Top US negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad was expected to arrive in Qatar yesterday to prepare for the final round of negotiations after receiving US President Donald Trump's blessing.

The current draft of the deal outlines the initial withdrawal of about 5,000 US troops in exchange for a Taleban pledge to sever ties with Al-Qaeda. The proposed agreement also calls for the beginning of Taleban talks with the Afghan government and planning for a ceasefire.

But the agreement does not mention ISIS, a sworn enemy of the Taleban that is considered by far the bigger terrorist threat.

 
 
 

In a report to the US Congress last month, the US Defence Department said that even if a settlement is reached with the Taleban, some hardliners, Al-Qaeda and ISIS will constitute a "substantial threat" to Afghanistan and the US, requiring a "robust" counter-terrorism capability for the foreseeable future.

All three groups are extremist Sunni militias, but they differ in background and behaviour.

The Taleban is a domestic Afghan movement with deep roots in its society. Al-Qaeda is an international Islamist militant terror network that has been largely eliminated. ISIS is a Middle East-based guerilla force that seeks to establish a geographic Islamic caliphate.

On Sunday, Mr Khalilzad tweeted that success in the talks "will put Afghans in a much stronger position to defeat ISIS".

Mr Salim Mohammed Salim, a former legislator in Kunar province, said ISIS had established bases in his region, forced villagers to flee, recruited some men by force and killed others who resisted.

He said the Taleban is more lenient and accepts local tribal decisions, but ISIS leaders cover their faces and are heavy-handed. "They don't listen. They just force," he said.

He added that Afghans had been through "a bitter experience" when former anti-Soviet fighters felt left out of power and turned into warring factions, causing a destructive civil war.

This time, "if there is no comprehensive peace agreement that offers the Taleban jobs, reintegration into society and a place in power, some of them will join Daesh, and the war will go on", he noted, using the Arabic name of ISIS.

WASHINGTON POST, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 22, 2019, with the headline 'Fears in Afghanistan over ISIS gaining from US-Taleban deal'. Print Edition | Subscribe