The Islamic State is growing at an alarming rate in Afghanistan, within striking distance of the capital, and there does not seem to be a concerted U.S. effort to strike the terrorist army as there is in the Syria-Iraq war theater.
An independent think tank has concluded that the allies are “reacting disjointedly and ineffectively” to the group in Afghanistan and other places outside those two countries.
The Islamic State’s numbers now may reach as high as 3,000 in Afghanistan, mostly in Nangarhar province, less than 50 miles east of Kabul. The emergence presents the NATO-backed elected government there with a fifth deadly enemy in addition to the Taliban, al Qaeda, the Haqqani network and elements of the Pakistani intelligence service.
Globally, the Islamic State, also called ISIL and ISIS, has affiliates in nearly 20 countries.
“It’s like a metastasizing cancer spreading throughout certain parts of the Islamic world,” said James Russell, a former Pentagon official and an instructor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. “We have to hope that the antibodies in these societies can ward off the death, misery and destruction that will come raining down upon them if ISIS takes hold in their communities.”
Afghanistan’s 3,000-member ISIL army is about one-tenth the size of the Afghan Taliban’s forces. But NATO says the Islamic State has reached the next stage of being an emerging threat. If its growth in other regions, such as North Africa, is a gauge, its Afghan component will only expand further as young Muslims are drawn by social media to its ultraviolent ways and Sunni orthodoxy.
Yet unlike in Syria and Iraq, where a U.S.-led coalition conducts a series of daily airstrikes against the Islamic State, there appears to be no such strategy in Afghanistan, where Afghan government forces now have the lead in all combat operations and request NATO air power on an ad hoc basis.
“What concerns me most is the fact that the United States has become a passive observer rather than the driver of the policy,” said Larry Johnson, a former counterterrorism official at the State Department, commenting on the overall U.S. effort against the Islamic State.
U.S. military spokesmen had no immediate comment on the question of American policy toward the Afghan Islamic State. Army Gen. John Campbell, the allied commander in-country, was asked at congressional hearings last week what triggers action against Islamic State. He answered that the criterion is “force protection.”
After the Syria-Iraq war theater, Islamic State’s emergence near Kabul could be the most troublesome for the U.S., whose troop levels have dropped to less than 10,000, and only a small portion of those forces are dedicated to assist in counterterrorism. The Islamic State has shown it can execute brutal attacks and deploy vehicle bombs to take territory and hold it.
Gen. Campbell said Afghanistan’s security forces lack the leadership and troop numbers to respond to every trouble spot.
Meanwhile, the Islamic State is beginning to flex its terrorism muscle in Afghanistan.
Islamic militant competition
The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) in Washington is tracking the Islamic State’s violent ways in Afghanistan and other countries. It said the Islamic State launched attacks in mid-September against a UNICEF convoy, Afghan government forces, the Afghan Taliban and Shiite civilians. In late September the Islamic State “launched coordinated attacks on multiple Afghan security positions” in Nangarhar, the think tank said.
“The group reportedly also shut down several schools in eastern Afghanistan amid other efforts to assert social control,” the institute said. “ISIS has established robust ground campaigns in Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan.”
The ISW said in the special report “ISIS Global Strategy: A Wargame,” written by counterterrorism analyst Harleen Gambhir, that the Islamic State’s expansion stems from its ability to attract local jihadis.
“The coalition is focused on Iraq and Syria, and it is reacting disjointedly and ineffectively to ISIS’s activities in Libya, Egypt, Afghanistan, and other places,” Ms. Gambhir writes. “ISW’s war game demonstrated how this failure enables ISIS to strategically outpace the U.S. and its allies.”
U.S. intelligence agencies are still trying to digest the meaning of Islamic State setting up shop in South Asia.
Nicholas Rasmussen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, speaks of an “increasing competition between extremist actors” in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region involving al Qaeda, the Taliban and the Islamic State.
“So that’s an additional factor that we’re still trying to understand,” Mr. Rasmussen told the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point in remarks published last month. He characterized the burgeoning competition as an “interesting feature of the South Asia landscape.”
Gen. Campbell, the U.S. commander closest to Islamic State terrorism in Afghanistan, said foreign fighters are arriving to join the Islamic State as they “try to bring in some sort of funding stream to build a place in Nangarhar.”
He said the emergence of Islamic State “has further complicated the theater landscape and potentially expanded the conflict.”
Mr. Johnson, the former counterterrorism official, said the leaders of Middle East and South Asia countries “concede that the U.S. has no appetite for being engaged, especially militarily in the region.”
The struggle between two radical Sunni groups, the Taliban and the Islamic State, may be sparked in part by the Taliban’s willingness to do business with Iran, a Shiite Islamic country.
“The Taliban have always been far more pragmatic in dealing with Iran, and the religious difference is not a critical factor,” Mr. Johnson said. “Not so with the ISIS crowd. For them, theology takes precedence, and Iran is an apostate state that must be destroyed.”