KABUL — As the United States ramps up its offensive against the Afghanistan branch of the Islamic State, the Taliban — a self-declared enemy of ISIS — says the American people are being fed lies.
The Islamic State isn’t a major issue in the country, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told the The WorldPost in an email. “The existence of the ISIS rumor in Afghanistan is an advertisement issue and is used to invade Afghanistan,” he said, adding that the American government and the CIA, in particular, are betraying Americans in order to keep troops in Afghanistan.
The Taliban brutally ruled the country between 1996 and 2001, when the U.S. and its allies invaded to target Al Qaeda camps there following the Sept. 11 attacks. The group has led an insurgency against the Western presence in the country ever since, and hopes to eventually re-establish control over Afghanistan now that the U.S.-led coalition is slowly pulling out.
The Obama administration has allowed American troops in Afghanistan to train the nation’s army for battle against the Taliban and to target what’s left of Al Qaeda there. But now the U.S. says its forces are going to target a new threat: In January, the White House cleared the way for Americans to target the Islamic State in Afghanistan, a branch of the group formally known as ISIS-Khorasan or ISIS-K. It was the first legal action of its kind meant to curb the extremist organization’s growth outside of Iraq and Syria, where Islamic State fighters have raped, pillaged and enforced a violent interpretation of Islam.
While the Taliban’s distaste for the Islamic State is no secret, the powerful militant group has reacted to U.S. strikes against its newly emerged enemy with fury — and tried to turn anyone who’ll listen against the new action by referencing bad memories of high-level deception by war-mongers in Washington.
“[This] happened in Iraq, where the CIA betrayed the people of America [saying] that Saddam Hussein has chemical weapons,” Mujahid said. “The CIA has been spreading such rumors to draw the attention of the American people to the Afghanistan invasion, which is a useless economic and human resource loss for the American people.”
Such arguments, designed deliberately to play on “the people of America,” are strategically important to Mujahid’s group. While the Taliban and the Islamic State share a hatred of the U.S. as well as some hardline interpretations of Islam, ISIS-K is a threat to the Afghan movement. The Taliban has been furious over Taliban fighters being bribed and pulled from its ranks to join this new rival, analysts say. Experts also note that for the Taliban to admit that another militant group has sway in Afghanistan would be to admit weakness.
“The Taliban, of course, have no interest in saying there is reality behind [the claims of ISIS in Afghanistan],” said Frederic Grare, an Afghanistan expert and nonresident senior associate in the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “What we see are basically facets of groups from the Taliban rebelling against the movement.”
Concerns over ISIS-K are emerging just at what looked like the perfect moment for the Taliban to take more ground in the country, bringing back policies like a ban on women’s education and mass public executions.
Attempts at negotiations between the government and the Taliban have faltered. Meanwhile, the extremist group’s sphere of influence has crept up once again to become greater than it’s been at any time since the U.S.-led invasion, and the Afghan armed forces remain relatively weak, corrupt and plagued with controversy, the latest being the revelation that U.S. advisers ignored Afghan officers’ rape of young boys. Now that the Taliban must spend time battling the Islamic State, the group has less time, money and manpower available to attack Afghan forces, foreigners, and civilians deemed to violate their strict beliefs.
Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, refused to say that the Islamic State posed a threat to Afghanistan.
“Very soon, we will clean all the areas from their dirtiness,” he said by email. “ISIS is neither welcomed in Afghanistan nor the ISIS thoughts are accepted by our nation here. So, it is not possible to count ISIS as a threat to us and our people.”
There are currently some 9,800 American troops in Afghanistan. Their primary job is to train, advise and assist Afghan forces, though the primarily non-combat nature of this role has been called into question. While President Barack Obama previously vowed to reduce the number of troops to 5,500 by 2017, leading military commanders have called for an increased longer-term troop presence amid strategic gains made by the Taliban.
The emergence of fighters who are aligned with the Islamic State poses yet another challenge to the U.S. plan.
Gen. John F. Campbell, the outgoing commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has estimated there are somewhere between 1,000 and 3,000 Islamic State fighters in the country, mostly consolidated in the east.
The extremist fighters recently claimed responsibility for a deadly attack near the Pakistani consulate in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad. The group has broadcast violent rhetoric urging Afghans to join their cause by radio since 2015. Two U.S. airstrikes destroyed a radio station in the eastern Nangarhar province in early February, reportedly killing 29 people described as Islamic State members.
“President [Ashraf] Ghani [of Afghanistan] takes them very seriously and considers Daesh to be a potential threat to national security,” U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Wilson A. Shoffner told The WorldPost during an interview at the headquarters of the U.S.-led coalition in Kabul, using another term for the group. “We are actively sharing information and intelligence with the Afghans.”
Shoffner said many of the Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan are former members of the Pakistani or Afghan Taliban, a sort of rebranding he says is like “changing your T-shirt” to fight under a different name.
The U.S. military categorizes the Islamic State in Afghanistan as “operationally emergent,” one step above “nascent.” Still, it urges caution about overestimating the group’s ability to rival the Taliban or link itself to the so-called Islamic State’s other branches around the Muslim world.
“Based on what we’ve seen, we’re not seeing a lot of deep-seated ideological support for Daesh,” Shoffner said. “We’re not seeing them having the ability of coordinating operations in more than one part of Afghanistan at a time. We’re not seeing Daesh elements in Syria or Iraq being able to orchestrate operations here in Afghanistan.”
And just as the Taliban has an interest in downplaying the Islamic State’s presence, it’s key to remember that the Afghan government and some parts of the U.S. military have an interest in exaggerating it to keep American soldiers and funds flowing.
Grare called U.S. claims of the Islamic State threat in Afghanistan “overblown.”
“This is one way for the Afghan government to keep whatever is left of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan,” the analyst said. While he believes the Islamic State’s threat to Afghanistan’s national security is likely inflated, Grare added that fighting between the group and the Taliban could reduce the already low chance of the Taliban investing in peace talks with the government.
And in terms of armed attacks, the Taliban is still the issue in Afghanistan. Civilian casualties in the country, nearly three-quarters of which have been linked to the Taliban, are now at record highs.
Akbar Shahid Ahmed in Washington and Naiemullah Sangen in Kabul contributed reporting.