ISIS could benefit if Taleban splinters follow peace deal with US

A US soldier watches as a Blackhawk Helicopter prepares to land during a mission in south-eastern Afghanistan, on Aug 4, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS

KABUL (WASHINGTON POST) - 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 United States forces and can no longer control populated areas. They say ISIS has been reduced to staging suicide attacks against "soft" targets, like the wedding party bombing in Kabul last Saturday (Aug 17) that killed 63 people and wounded 190.

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

But local leaders in the border provinces of Nangahar and Konar 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.

They and US officials say that 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. The top US negotiator, Mr Zalmay Khalilzad, was expected to arrive in Qatar on Wednesday to prepare for the final round of negotiations after receiving President Donald Trump's blessing.

In the current draft, 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 cease-fire.

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 Congress last month, the 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 guerrilla 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". US officials believe that the Taleban, already battling ISIS, can be a force multiplier for US counter-terrorism efforts against the group.

ISIS in Afghanistan is estimated to number between 2,500 and 5,000 fighters, according to figures from the US military and the United Nations. The US military estimated that total was about 1,000 active fighters in 2017. But there is widespread concern here that those numbers could rise even more if ISIS uses a US-Taleban agreement to siphon off hardline Taleban fighters who oppose the deal and ramp up its terror war.

ISIS is "trying to position itself as being able to reap the benefit of any fissures in the Taleban after a peace deal", one Western official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to discuss the matter. He said the group had posted messages criticising the Taleban for "negotiating with the enemy".

Asked on Tuesday whether the militants were gaining strength, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo noted that the caliphate, centred in Iraq and Syria, was gone. But, he said in a CBS interview that comported with Defence Department comments about Afghanistan, "there are certainly places where ISIS is more powerful today than they were three or four years ago".

The Taleban, with up to 80,000 fighters, far outnumbers ISIS, the Western official said. "But ISIS is more relentless. The Taleban still think they are going after legitimate targets. For ISIS, anyone is fair game. They can do a lot of devastation with single actors, as we saw with the wedding attack. They've been recruiting young Sunni men in Afghan universities, and looking for those who can cross borders more easily to fight abroad. That's one reason to keep a counter-terror force in the country."

Among those making that argument is Mr David Petraeus, a former top US military commander in Afghanistan. He argued in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece this month, co-written with Mr Vance Serchuk of the Centre for a New American Security, that "the cost of retaining a few thousand troops in Afghanistan pales in comparison with the price the nation will pay, strategically and economically, if Al-Qaeda or ISIS rebuilds a terrorist platform there".

In Kabul, especially in the minority Shi'ite and ethnic Hazara community where ISIS claimed the recent wedding attack and scores of suicide bombings in the past several years, community leaders say they expect such attacks to become worse after a Taleban peace agreement, as ISIS flexes its religious and military muscle with both US forces and former Taleban enemies no longer in the fighting business.

"Even after a peace deal is signed, Daesh attacks will continue and Taleban hardliners will join them," said Mr Chaman Ali Behsodi, a municipal representative in a Hazara district near the wedding attack. The local branch of the militant group in Afghanistan calls itself ISIS in Khorasan but is known to Afghans by its Arabic name, Daesh.

He said a female ISIS suicide bomber blew up a voter registration centre in the district last year, killing 60 people. "We are asking the government to give us arms, because they cannot protect us."

Mr Zulfiqar Omid, a Hazara activist in Kabul, said ISIS and other terror groups will continue to target his community no matter what becomes of the Taleban. Many analysts ascribe ISIS' motives to religious hatred for Shi'ites, but Mr Omid said Hazaras are targeted because they are "pro-election, pro-education and pro-women's rights".

The terrorists, he said, "want to create panic in our community, by creating horror in mosques, schools, sports gyms, and now wedding halls".

ISIS entered the Afghan conflict in 2014 as an offshoot of tribal extremist groups in Pakistan. It was not seen initially as a major threat, but as its numbers grew, the group tried to seize territory in four provinces, recruited students, and staged scores of suicide bombings.

Since being defeated in Iraq and Syria, the group has begun urging idle foreign fighters to join a holy war in Afghanistan. It has gained substantial income from local minerals, lumber and other natural resources, and it also extorts and kidnaps people for ransom, according to a UN report.

American military officials have been targeting ISIS in Afghanistan for the past several years, conducting joint counter-terror missions with Afghan special operations forces and with support from drone attacks. American military officials said they pushed back the militants to the rugged Spin Ghar mountains, but the group has claimed dozens of urban bombings in the past four years that have killed hundreds of people.

Attacks attributed to ISIS killed or wounded 423 of 3,812 total civilian casualties in the first half of this year, according to a report issued recently by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.

In parts of rural eastern Afghanistan, meanwhile, several officials this week described ISIS as having been restricted but not defeated. Mr Ataullah Khogiani, spokesman for the Nangahar governor, said the militants' influence was declining and they could not capture new areas, but that "they still have a presence".

"They and the Taleban fight and kill each other, but we don't know who has the upper hand," he said.

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

"They are dug in these rugged areas, and nobody can dislodge them," he said. "The Taleban tried and failed. The Americans used to send drones, but they stopped. The Afghan government is incompetent."

He said the Taleban are more lenient and accept local tribal decisions, but ISIS leaders cover their faces and are "heavy-handed".

"They don't listen. They just force."

The former lawmaker said 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, he said, "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".

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