IS 'playing whack-a-mole' in Afghanistan

IS 'playing whack-a-mole' in Afghanistan
In-depth: IS-Khorasan, the Afghan franchise of the Islamic State group's network, disappears from the site of one attack only to reappear in another, writes Mohammed Harun Arsalai.
7 min read
10 August, 2017
An Afghan soldier stands in an IS-K cell captured by the ANA in Achin [Getty]

The Islamic State-Khorasan group's brazen midday attack on the Iraqi embassy in Kabul at the end of July killed two and injured at least another three.

A suicide bomber detonated his explosives at the gate of the Iraqi embassy, allowing IS-K gunmen to enter the complex, sparking a four-hour gun battle. 

The Monday attack took place in Kabul city's Shar-e-Naw district, a busy mixed-to-upscale area of the capital supposedly protected by Kabul's ring of steel - a network of around 25 checkpoints across central Kabul. It was a massive security failure by any measure.

A report recently released by UNAMA shows casualties and deaths in Afghanistan at record levels, with the majority of casualties in the nations capital. UNAMA's mid-year casualty report for Afghanistan states that 1,662 Afghan civilians - mostly women and children - were killed, and another 3,581 injured, in the first six months of 2017.

The existence of IS-Khorasan in Afghanistan has been somewhat demystified in recent months, but the the group's formations and motivations continue to confuse journalists and analysts alike, as the militants continue to carry out complex attacks with relative ease while supposedly having taken devastating loses in areas like Nangarhar. Here the IS-K is attempting to repel a campaign led by the Afghan National Army and supported by US airpower and various non-state groups and militias.

Anti-IS actions in rural areas without being able to contain militants' retreats is allowing for the group to continue a game of 'whack-a-mole', disappearing from the site of one attack to reappear in another

The Taliban in Nangarhar are also known to have worked alongside local militias and , reportedly in some cases the ANA, to coordinate attacks and dislodge IS-K, the local franchise of the armed network founded in Iraq and Syria.

Just three months after the US dropped the "Mother Of All Bombs" on IS-K and intensified their operations to dislodge them from rural areas including Achin, Shinwar, Khogyani, Kot and other areas in eastern Nangarhar province, IS-K is still proving its capacity to wreak violence and terror.  

It is a matter of grave concern for Afghan security forces and citizens - an alliance of militaries and paramilitaries carrying out anti-IS actions in rural areas without being able to contain militants' retreats is allowing for the group to continue a game of "whack-a-mole", disappearing from the site of one attack to reappear in another.

Failing to contain their movements leaves Afghanistan's major cities vulnerable to IS-K attacks.

"It's also important to note the group's actions, although falling in line with their overall strategy of destabilising the Afghan government and proliferating sectarianism, IS-Khorasan's [latest] attack seems to be the group's first 'internationalist' act in solidarity with IS as a global network," remarked one Afghan intelligence official who asked to remain anonymous.

"They've attacked embassies before, along with other government and civilian targets - their motivations are mainly to recreate chaos and destabilise the country, but this is the first action of this motivation, I believe... It's too soon to see whether this is a campaign or a one-off attack in response to IS losses in Iraq".

But Jawed Kohistani, a Kabul-based security analyst, drew a more direct line. "To avenge its defeat in Iraq, Islamic State and its supporters attacked the Iraqi embassy in Kabul," he stated.

I swear to God, not even the Russians were like this

From its inception, IS-K's brutality rang alarm bells among locals. Initially presenting themselves as refugees, IS-K members spread out in areas of Achin and Shinwar, districts bordering Pakistan in Nangarhar province, and began to convince locals they would push out the Taliban from the region. Once IS-K had established a foothold, they brought greater oppression than any locals had seen before.

"I swear to God, not even the Russians were like this," one Shinwar resident told The New Arab.

Borhan Osman of the Afghan Analyst Network claims the group splintered off from the Pakistani Taliban (TTP).

"The IS fighters who pioneered the Khorasan franchise of the IS were Pakistani militants who had long been settled in the southeastern districts of Nangarhar, in the Spin Ghar mountains or its foothills, bordering the tribal agencies on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line," he said.

Anand Gopal, a journalist and author, said back in 2015 that a media "obsession" with the development of IS in Iraq and Syria, allowed IS-K to develop rapidly.

"There's been increased dissatisfaction among certain elements of the Taliban, and with the media talking about ISIS all the time and the Afghan government playing up the idea of ISIS as a way of keeping the United States interested, all of that sort of set the ground for the groups to rebrand themselves," he told PBS.

Accusations were made by the former governor of Paktika, Abdul Karim Mateen, which were later pushed to the public's attention by the deputy speaker of parliament, Haji Abdul Zaheer Qadeer - that President Ashraf Ghani's national security advisor, Mohammed Hanif Atmar, had been secretly funding and propping up the local Islamic State group wilyat.

The Ghani administration promised to investigate the allegations but has yet to release any information.

In 2015, there was a brief moment where local forces - both state and non-state armed groups - coordinated against IS-K to great success, but were denied support by the US military.

The distrust between the US and some of those leading the efforts against IS in Afghanistan, including Haji Zaheer Qadeer - a former senior figure in the Northern Alliance - led to the expansion of IS into other regions of Afghanistan.

In a 2015 interview with Qadeer at his fortified family compound in Sorkrod, Nangarhar, he told this reporter that "his men" had dealt major blows to the IS-K network's operations. "They were surrounded and their supply lines were cut," he said. "Another couple of months and they would have been wiped out."

There was direct communication and coordination happening between local [Taliban] militias and ANA forces when were fighting against [IS-K]...  we were back to being brothers

The government led by Ashraf Ghani was critical of his efforts, claiming he was looking to usurp power in Nangarhar. The accusations continued against Qadeer for weeks while the government planned a way to take over anti-IS efforts in eastern Afghanistan.

A Taliban official told this reporter "there was direct communication and coordination happening between local militias and ANA forces when were fighting against [IS-K]". The official said he had been hopeful at the time that their joint anti-IS efforts would lead to greater unity: "There was a feeling that we were back to being brothers, although we always were." 

Government and media reports of IS-K losses in the past year appear to indicate that the group has been severely weakened. As reported recently, proving any of the claims made by the US military or Afghan government have been difficult if not impossible to verify.

The commander of US Forces in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, said in a July statement: "This operation is another success in our campaign to defeat ISIS-K in Afghanistan in 2017. Abu Sayed is the third ISIS-K emir we have killed in the last year and we will continue until they are annihilated. There is no safe haven for ISIS-K in Afghanistan."

Nicholson was referring to Hafiz Sayed Khan, who was killed in 2016, and Abdul Hasib, who was killed this April.

Donald Trump, for his part, has stayed true to his plan to "bomb the sh*t" out of IS - with the US military dropping at least 1,634 bombs on Afghanistan in the first six months of 2017 - a 65 percent increase from the same time last year, according to the US Air Force's own figures.

One of those was the "Mother Of All Bombs", experimentally used in Achin district of Nangarhar province to dislodge the group - which appears to have had little effect. 

If IS-K loses its footing in rural areas in Nangarhar, the group will likely simply reappear elsewhere and continue to operate in areas like Afghanistan's supposed "safe" cities, as we have just seen in Kabul.

Mohammed Harun Arsalai is an independent journalist and political activist from the Bay Area of California, and co-founder of the independent media project, Documenting Afghanistan. Currently based in his native Afghanistan, Mohammed's recent work focuses on refugees, the War on Terror, and militant groups operating inside Afghanistan. 

Follow him on Twitter: @ArsalaiH