by Casey Garret Johnson and Sanaullah Tassal
Foreign Policy via Fractured Atlas
November 26, 2015
JALALABAD — When the security situation in Nangarhar deteriorated sharply in early 2014, no one in this Afghan border province had ever heard of the so-called Islamic State (IS). A year and a half later, the black and white banners of IS are stenciled on the walls of the largest state-run university, and a former Guantánamo Bay detainee — and Nangarhar native — has appointed himself emir of IS’ Khorosan regional group. Some of the loudest IS supporters in this province, known as one of the most educated in all of Afghanistan, are the young and intelligent aspiring engineers and journalists. In August, 10 tribal leaders were bound and blindfolded by IS, who accused them of providing support to the Taliban. They were led past IS flags and masked gunmen, and forced to kneel atop a string of improvised explosive devices. The video of their execution went viral.
Still, analysts hesitate to slap the IS label on the new militancy emerging in Nangarhar, as much for the lack of clear evidence of direct operational support from Raqqa as for the fear of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yet, by the summer of 2015, a group looking, sounding, and acting a lot like IS was active in at least seven of Nangarhar’s 21 districts, according to residents and Afghan intelligence officials Foreign Policy spoke to. The situation grew so alarming that in July and August, fighters from around the country were summoned to Nangarhar to combat IS. These were not U.S.-funded and trained Afghanistan National Army soldiers sent by Kabul. They were Taliban insurgents, many dispatched from the group’s southern strongholds, rushing into a province in which they felt they had as much to lose as the government.
Foreign Policy interviewed 16 Nangarharis in the provincial capital of Jalalabad and surrounding districts, including fearful tribal elders, Taliban militants, some of the loudest young IS advocates, and a number of Salafi preachers who find themselves under increasing pressure to provide ideological and practical support to IS, which most here know by its Arabic acronym, Daesh. These interviews paint a picture of a militant organization that, whatever its operational ties to Raqqa, is employing the same mixture of terror, pragmatism, and ideology in Afghanistan that has been well-documented in Iraq and Syria. But they also describe a growing backlash amongst initially welcoming segments of the community who now see IS as a Pakistani proxy with no other goal but to destabilize Afghanistan. Rather than uniting the multitude of tribes and interests around the goal of a caliphate, IS has become entangled in regional and local feuding, much as the U.S.-led coalition has over the past decade.
Nangarhar has had its share of insurgency-linked security problems since 2001, but the Taliban has never been particularly strong in this part of eastern Afghanistan. Few of the new (or old) guard Taliban leaders hail from the east. While locals in this region have nominally fought for the Taliban for years, this is often borne of necessity and pragmatism.
For instance, members of insurgent groups dating back to the anti-Soviet jihad who have fought under the Afghan Taliban banner since 2001, such as Hizb-e Islami, are now tactically aligned with IS, according to residents in the province. This already-fractured insurgent landscape makes Nangarhar, more than, say, Kandahar, a place where IS could gain a foothold without much competition. Kandahar and other regions where the Taliban had more ideological support from the population will prove harder for IS to infiltrate. Since Taliban supporters in Nangarhar were never fully included in Taliban leadership positions, it makes them more prone to converting to the cause of the Islamic State.
In October, Franz-Michael Mellbin, the European Union’s special representative for Afghanistan, told the Atlantic Council that IS would “feed on [public] disenchantment with the government” of Afghanistan, a traditional counterinsurgency theory of recruitment often used to explain the Taliban’s rise. Instead, IS feeds off disenchantment within and between the various insurgent movements on both sides of the border. IS pursued this recruitment and consolidation tactic in Syria, where the Assad regime has been of secondary concern to co-opting and eliminating competing rebel factions. To pull supporters in its direction in Afghanistan, IS has thus far focused the bulk of its propaganda on labeling the Taliban as “un-Islamic.”
In Nangarhar, the IS strategy extends beyond propaganda and co-option. In addition to the 10 tribal elders it blew up in August, it has conducted a targeted assassination campaign against its competition. 21 alleged Taliban supporters have been beheaded in Kot district alone, with reports of beheadings in at least five other districts throughout the province, according to one Afghan journalist who, like the rest of those interviewed, was fearful of providing his name.
Following the confirmation of Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar’s death in late summer 2015, there was concern that IS would exploit his demise to recruit disenfranchised Taliban field commanders in the same way it preyed upon a fracturing rebel landscape in Syria from 2013 to 2014. In attracting opportunistic former Afghan Taliban members, IS has learned lessons from its strategy in Pakistan. By exploiting divisions within the Pakistani Taliban stemming from the death of that group’s leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, in a November 2013 drone strike, IS successfully recruited disgruntled fighters like the Pakistani Hafiz Saeed, a former Tehrik-e Taliban commander. Though it has been reported that Saeed was killed in an airstrike in July, a number of those interviewed claimed that he was indeed alive as of early November. Regardless of Saeed’s fate, IS uses the narrative of successfully recruiting members from other organizations to bolster its image of regional strength and domination.
Yet, Pakistani militants have always had trouble operating on Afghan soil. Though they have been given sanctuary by communities along the border, this has usually come with the caveat that they not stray too far inland. The bulk of those claiming to be IS now are disgruntled field commanders who have been fighting under the Afghan Taliban banner for years. Their alignment is driven more by necessity than ideology.
By September, 2015, Afghan and Pakistani factions had arisen within IS — not surprising, given the decades of open hostility between their two nations, particularly along the border. In mid-October, Rahim Muslimdost, the former Guantánamo Bay detainee who blames Pakistan for handing him over to U.S. forces, publicly broke with Hafiz Saeed’s IS faction, essentially saying that Saeed needed to return to Pakistan where he belonged. Muslimdost charged that Pakistani intelligence had hijacked IS in Afghanistan, another ploy in a long line of moves to keep its neighbor weak. In the same breath, Muslimdost re-affirmed his support to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. IS has not publicly weighed in on the dispute.
Some of those Foreign Policy interviewed speculated that IS had targeted Nangarhar precisely because of its position as a border province, along with the opportunity to symbolically erase the Af-Pak border — the contentious Durand Line — as they had done to great symbolic effect along the Iraq-Syria border. As of now, however, the caliphate is bogged down in the same Af-Pak nation-state border politics and proxy fighting that has plagued everyone from the Taliban, to occupying countries, to international aid agencies for years.
Ideology and Terror
Beginning in mid-June, IS began disseminating night letters: intimidating messages pinned on doors or delivered to homes under the cover of darkness. This IS tactic focuses mainly on religious leaders with large congregations based in Jalalalabad, as well as in neighboring Kunar province directly to the north. The majority of these imams and madrassa teachers are Salafi, a subset of Sunnis that ascribe to a fundamentalist view of Islam. Salafis advocate a strict adherence to Islamic doctrine and practice as it existed during the time of the Prophet Mohammed in the seventh century.
The vast majority of Salafis do not support IS or condone violence. After the Arab Spring in Egypt, for instance, Salafi political groups even participated in contemporary national politics. Although IS has recruited former Taliban fighters, the majority of these efforts have focused on the broader public. In fact, those being courted and coerced by IS in eastern Afghanistan are predominately individuals, like Salafis, that have not participated in the Taliban’s anti-government insurgency — principally because they found the Taliban’s accommodation of local traditions like shrine worship and tribal legal codes to be un-Islamic.
Much of the Islamic State’s millenarian ideology borrows heavily from Salafism, and the terror organization has sought the support of Salafi leaders around the world to provide religious cover for its violent actions. Those we spoke with in Nangarhar agreed this tactic partly explained the strength of IS in their province.
A well known Islamic scholar and professor at Nanagarhar University put it bluntly: IS “is in Nangarhar because there are more Salafis here than in other places [in Afghanistan], and these people are frustrated with the security situation and the government, but they also don’t believe in the Taliban.”
Among those well-known Salafis to have joined IS was Sheikh Jalaluddin, an Islamic judge from neighboring Kunar who had long opposed the Taliban and joined IS along with five other local fighters over the summer. He was subsequently killed in a U.S. airstrike in Nangarhar’s Achin district in mid-October, according to several religious leaders and journalists from the area.
Willing support for IS seems to be the exception and not the rule. Another prominent imam and madrassa teacher in Jalalabad recounted being approached by an IS member. He was given the choice to either send his 40 students to IS recruiters for indoctrination or be killed. The students are now with IS. Whether they are on the front lines or engaged in some form of propaganda or recruitment is unclear.
Others Foreign Policy spoke with noted that the IS campaign in Afghanistan targeted not just the Salafis. “They are really targeting the urban areas. They want the educated people to support them — the university students and professors and journalists and not just the religious leaders. This is something that the Taliban never put a lot of effort into,” one official in the Nangarhar provincial governor’s office said.
As of late October, IS was on the defensive in a number of Nangarhari districts where it had been ascendant only months before. Public opinion began shifting in September when the IS recruitment strategy began transitioning from outreach and indoctrination to terror. The growing perception that Pakistani intelligence had infiltrated IS did not help their image either. “A few months ago we felt like [IS] was a local force that could stand up to the Taliban. Now we see that they are under the control of Pakistan and only concerned with creating instability here,” one resident of Bati Kot district said. While this affiliation remains unproven, suspicion continues to grow.
This shift in opinion has forced some strange alliances. Taliban commanders have been seen at anti-IS coordination meetings between the government and local leaders. In September, Afghan government forces in Kot district fought side by side with locals and the Taliban. In other districts, the Taliban have signed security agreements with individual tribes in an attempt to create anti-IS zones, but further fracturing communal relations along tribal lines.
The Ghani government has reacted by taking off the gloves, appointing former anti-Soviet commanders to governorships in several Nangarhar districts. These officials, locals report, have expanded power to lead offensive military operations. One of these new governors is Mohammad Ghalib. A career mujahedeen, Ghalib fought both the Soviets and the Taliban for decades. He was rewarded with command over his tribal territory in Nangarhar after the Taliban fled in 2001. In 2003, he was picked up by U.S. Special Forces on allegations of storing improvised explosive devices for the Taliban, and detained at Guantánamo Bay until 2007. This man is now one of those leading the fight against IS forces in eastern Afghanistan, territory still nominally under the control of Ghalib’s fellow Gitmo detainee Rahim Muslimdost.
The Ghani government continues to point the finger across the border at Pakistan first and foremost, advancing the idea that IS is composed of and controlled by foreign fighters. Though this strategy may have short-term gains — for all its divisions, Afghans cling strongly to a sense of nationalism, and banding together to fight outsiders is a time-honored tradition — it threatens to exacerbate the cross-border political issues that will continue to undermine security in the long term.
Then again: at least the broke and beleaguered Afghan government is advancing a strategy against IS, something that cannot be said for the rest of the world’s powers combined.