The United States is ending its longest war, calculating that the terrorist threat from Afghanistan cannot reach its shores and that threats to the West by militants can be neutralized from a distance.
KABUL, Afghanistan – Tribal elder Dawlat Khan still has nightmares about fighters from the local affiliate of the Islamic State’s global terror network that swept his and other villages in eastern Afghanistan five years ago.
Extremists, including Afghans, Pakistanis, Arabs and Central Asian men, quickly imposed a reign of terror. They kidnapped some residents who worked for the Afghan government, then leaving their beheaded bodies in public places. In one case, the villagers were summoned to a beheading, where some passed out while others froze while watching in horror.
Militants from the Islamic State group have since been driven back into the mountains by violent bombings in the US and Afghanistan and in a fierce land campaign by the Taliban, Afghanistan’s local insurgents. The Taliban, eager to expand their internal political power, promised the Trump administration last year that it would prevent any attack on the West on Afghan soil after foreign troops left.
The recent success in containing IS is central to the calculations of President Joe Biden, who decided earlier this month to withdraw all remaining American troops from Afghanistan by the summer. Biden argues that threats to the West, whether from IS or remnants of the Al Qaeda network, can be neutralized at a distance.
However, there are concerns that in the potential chaos of post-withdrawal Afghanistan, IS “will be able to find additional space to operate,” said Seth Jones, senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Some note that it took more than three years to evict and degrade ISIS fighters, many of them ethnic Pashtuns from Pakistan’s tribal regions and Afghans from the northeast Nangarhar and Kunar provinces. Retreating militants left roads and minefields behind.
Khan, the tribal leader, fled his village of Pananzai with his six brothers and their families at the height of the battles against ISIS. They are not rushing home, although the family of 63 people are huddled in nine small rooms in the capital of Nangarhar province, Jalalabad.
“We fear that they will come back,” Khan, a father of 12, said of ISIS fighters.
Biden said he would hold the Taliban accountable for its commitment not to allow terrorist threats against the United States or its allies on Afghan soil. The United States invaded Afghanistan 20 years ago after Al Qaeda militants, hosted by the Taliban, organized the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
In recent years, Washington has come to see the Taliban as a national force, with no ambitions beyond its borders, according to a US defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity under regulations.
The Taliban, familiar with mountain caves and remote dirt paths, are a useful ally against ISIS, which the United States sees as the biggest threat from Afghanistan, the official said.
In justifying his withdrawal decision, Biden noted that terrorist threats are “metastasizing around the globe” and that “keeping thousands of troops grounded and concentrated in just one country, at the cost of billions each year, makes little sense to me and our leaders. “
The withdrawal is underway, with the finals starting on Saturday. On September 11, the United States will have withdrawn its last 2,500 to 3,500 troops, and some 7,000 NATO allied forces are following the same schedule.
But there are concerns about the resurgence of ISIS, especially if the Taliban and the Afghan government fail to reach a power-sharing agreement. Intra-Afghan peace negotiations remain paralyzed, despite efforts by the United States to initiate them.
The ongoing fighting between the Taliban and the government could further erode the morale of Afghanistan’s more than 300,000 security forces, who suffer heavy casualties daily and are plagued by widespread corruption. It is not clear how the troops can be a bulwark against new terrorist threats.
At the same time, ISIS continues to recruit radicalized university students and disgruntled Taliban, said a former Afghan security officer who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
IS has also resumed a campaign of targeted assassinations of Shiite Muslim minorities, many of them Hazara ethnicities, as well as women’s rights activists and media workers. They alleged attacks last year at two educational facilities, including the University of Kabul, which killed more than 50 students. Washington blamed ISIS for a brutal attack last year on a maternity hospital in a predominantly Hazara neighborhood in Kabul. Babies and pregnant women were killed.
In March, seven Hazara who worked in a plaster factory in the eastern city of Jalalabad were killed in an attack claimed by ISIS. The attackers tied their victims’ hands behind their backs and shot each one with a single bullet in the back of the head.
Some residents are afraid to point a finger at the IS, fearing they will be the next targets.
IS agents are said to occupy an entire neighborhood close to Talashi’s central roundabout. They have infiltrated the motorized rickshaw business and use the vehicles for selective murders, said taxi driver Saida Jan.
Evan Kohlmann, a terrorism consultant, said for a while that it appeared that ISIS ‘presence in Afghanistan and neighboring regions “was almost dead”, but the group’s operations “have been resumed for real.”
“They represent a significant terrorist threat, but their tactics remain in the realm of murder and sabotage,” said Kohlmann, who worked with the FBI and the Nine Eleven Finding Answers Foundation, which emerged after the attacks on America.
“They don’t seem to be in a strong position to conquer and maintain territory,” or to threaten the United States, he said.
The Taliban claim to have kept promises made to the United States by ordering combatants to remove non-Afghans from their ranks and telling al Qaeda to leave the region. Some analysts say they are not convinced that the Taliban has distanced itself from groups like Al Qaeda.
American officials, however, recognize that the withdrawal will reduce Washington’s intelligence-gathering capabilities, even though IS and Al Qaeda are not in a position to attack American targets in Afghanistan.
Asfandyar Mir, from the Stanford University Center for International Security and Cooperation, said the United States will be able to continue listening at a distance, while intelligence gathering in the field will further weaken.
“The US campaign in Afghanistan has been notoriously poor at getting good information and being interpreted by actors looking for rent, the cost of which is borne by innocent civilians in raids and attacks that have gone wrong,” said Mir.
“With US forces out, and unable to provide security to potential informants, existing sources will diminish and opportunities for criminals to deceive the US will grow,” he said.