US-Taliban peace deal will empower ISIS in Afghanistan, say insiders

ISIS Islamic State AfghanistanAn imminent peace agreement between the United States government and the Taliban will inadvertently empower the Islamic State in Afghanistan, according to a number of insiders, who warn that the soon-to-be-announced deal may have grave unintended consequences for the war-ravaged country.

After nearly two decades or war, the United States is close to concluding a peace agreement with the Taliban, the Pashtun-based Sunni group that has waged an Islamist insurgency against the American-supported government of Afghanistan since 2001. The two sides have said that they will be signing a peace settlement on February 29, providing that an ongoing agreement for a week-long reduction in armed violence holds. If the current reduction in violence continues unabated, the United States has agreed to remove most of its troops from the country, while the Taliban have agreed to initiate peace negotiations with the Afghan government.

But a team of journalists with the American television program Frontline, who are working on the ground in Afghanistan, report that the impending peace deal may bear unintended consequences. They report that numerous sources in Afghanistan are warning that the peace deal will result in an increase in membership for the Islamic State forces in the country. This will happen, they say, because Taliban fighters who object to a peace treaty with Washington will abandon the Taliban and join the Islamic State. Some Frontline sources claim that the majority of the Taliban’s foot soldiers are preparing to join the Islamic State if a deal is struck between Washington and the Taliban.

The Frontline team quotes one Islamic State commander in Afghanistan, who claims that the peace deal will “make the caliphate rise”, as “Taliban fighters have promised to join us”. The United States is trying to pre-empt this expected trend, according to reports. The Pentagon expects that, as soon as the peace treaty with the Taliban is signed, it will need to redirect its remaining troops in the country to focus their attention to the forces of the Islamic State.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 February 2020 | Permalink

Pakistani Taliban leaders found dead in Kabul hotel, culprits unknown

Inter-Continental Hotel KabulTwo senior members of the Pakistani Taliban, who were carrying fake identification documents, were reportedly assassinated earlier this month in the vicinity of a luxury hotel in the Afghan capital Kabul. The culprits remain unknown, although the leadership of the Pakistani Taliban has blamed the United States for their death.

According to the BBC, which reported on the incident on Friday, the bodies of the two men were found in or near the Inter-Continental, a five-star hotel located in western Kabul. According to Afghan government sources, the two men were carrying forged identification papers. In a statement issued on Thursday, the Pakistani Taliban identified the dead men as Sheikh Khalid Haqqani and Qari Saif Younis. Sheikh Haqqani had served as the group’s deputy leader, and was a member of its leadership council. Younis was among the group’s most powerful military commanders.

The Pakistani Taliban said that the two men had secretly traveled to Kabul from Paktika, a Taliban stronghold in the east-central region of Afghanistan, in order to attend a high-level meeting. The group did not say who the two men were meeting and why. But it is rare for leading figures of the Pakistani Taliban to leave the areas that the group controls, and even rarer for them to travel to Kabul or any other big city in the region.

The statement from the Pakistani Taliban claimed that the two men were killed “in a clash with American forces”. But the BBC quoted an unnamed “source within the group” who said that they could also have been targeted by militant groups linked to the Pakistani government, which is a sworn enemy of the Pakistani Taliban. United States officials have yet to comment on this developing story.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 February 2020 | Permalink

Despite imminent US-Taliban deal, CIA plans to keep proxy units in Afghanistan

Armed guerillas Khost AfghanistanThe United States Central Intelligence Agency plans to retain a strong presence on the ground in Afghanistan, despite reports that American troops may soon be leaving the country following a deal with the Taliban. Several news outlets reported this week that Washington has resolved its differences with the Taliban about withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan, after receiving assurances by the Taliban that they will not cooperate with other militant Islamist groups, including al-Qaeda. An announcement of an agreement between the United States and the Taliban may thus be imminent. But in an article for Foreign Policy, Stefanie Glinski points out that the CIA is not planning to leave the Central Asian country any time soon.

The American intelligence agency is known to support, arm and train several proxy forces throughout Afghanistan. Langley plans to keep those proxy forces operating in the country for the foreseeable future, regardless of whether US troops pull out, says Glinski. She gives the example of the Khost Protection Force (KPF), a 6,500-strong unit of Afghan soldiers who are “trained, equipped and funded by the CIA”. The KPF is the most active and visible of an extensive network of CIA-sponsored paramilitary groups in Afghanistan. It operates almost exclusively along the Afghan-Pakistani border and has a strong presence in Taliban strongholds like Ghazni, Paktia and Khost. The roots of the KPF go back to the days immediately after the attacks of September 11, 2001, which prompted the US military invasion of Afghanistan. It therefore precedes the Afghan National Army, Afghanistan’s state-run military apparatus, and does not operate under its command. Instead, it is solely directed by the CIA, which uses it to secure the Afghan-Pakistani border and disrupt the activities of Taliban, al-Qaeda and Islamic State fighters in the Afghan borderlands.

Members of the KPF claim that they are “better trained than the Afghan National Army”. They are also paid much better, over $1000.00 per month, which is an enormous sum for Afghanistan. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Glinski reports that most KPF fighters joined the group for the money and the ability to eventually seek permanent resettlement in the United States. But alongside the group’s elite image, KPF members have acquired notoriety and are often seen as trigger-happy and unaccountable. Several reports in Western media have said that the KPF’s tactical accomplishments have come at a high price, with countless reports of civilian deaths and, some claim, even war crimes. These risk “alienating the Afghan population”, said a New York Times report last year. Glinski says it is possible the KPF’s aggressive tactics may be “radicalizing portions of the very population it intends to pacify or frighten into submission”. In April of this year, a United Nations report alleged that more Afghan civilians died as a result of attacks by Afghan government and American military attacks than at the hands of the Taliban and other guerilla groups. The CIA did not respond to several requests for comment from Foreign Policy, says Glinski.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 August 2019 | Permalink

ISIS in Afghanistan is now more dangerous than the Taliban, say experts

ISIS Islamic State AfghanistanThe Islamic State group in Afghanistan is now more threatening than the Taliban to both Afghan and Western interests, according to some experts, who warn that many of its fighters are moving there from the Middle East. It was in late 2014 when the Islamic State, known formerly as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), made its initial appearance in Afghanistan. Soon an official Islamic State affiliate emerged in Afghanistan, calling itself Islamic State – Khorasan Province. Security observers estimated the group’s strength to below 150 armed fighters, most of them Pakistani Taliban who had sought refuge in Afghanistan, or small cadres of Afghan Taliban who pursued a more globalized Salafist agenda. Aided by the growing worldwide notoriety of its parent organization in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State – Khorasan Province grew in size in 2015 and 2016. Its armed cadres were joined by Salafist-jihadists from Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, as well as by radical Muslims from China’s northwestern Xinjiang Province. In 2016, as the Islamic State began retreating in the Middle East, fighters from there gradually began to make their way to Afghanistan, adding to the numerical strength of the organization’s Khorasan Province branch.

Today, the strength of the Islamic State in Afghanistan is concentrated in four northeastern Afghan provinces, Nuristan, Nangarhar, Kunar and Laghman. Nearly all of these provinces border Pakistan and none are far from the Afghan capital Kabul. According to the Associated Press’ Kathy Gannon, who wrote an extensive article about the current state of the Islamic State in Afghanistan, the primary military goal of the group’s Khorasan Province branch is to expand its territory. Some believe that the Islamic State aspires to one day conquer Jalalabad, a city of nearly 400,000 residents that serves as the administrative center of Nangarhar Province. This aspiration is not delusional; Gannon cites an unnamed US intelligence official who insists that the Islamic State is now a more deadly threat than the Taliban to Afghan and Western security. Islamic State fighters are acquiring increasingly sophisticated military hardware, which enables them to broaden their tactical capabilities. Additionally, unlike the Taliban, who largely follow a policy of limiting their attacks on government and military targets, the Islamic State appears to be deliberately targeting civilians. What is more, security experts see these attacks as “practice runs for even bigger attacks in Europe and the US”. In other words, the Islamic State – Khorasan Province is actively using its Afghan base to plan “external attacks in the US and Europe [and] it’s just a matter of time” before these occur, says a US intelligence official.

According to Gannon, the growth of the Islamic State in Afghanistan is so alarming that some security experts are beginning to see the Taliban as a potential partner of the West in containing the danger. One expert says that the Taliban remain bigger and stronger than the Islamic State, and their fighters “know the terrain [and] territory” of northeastern Afghanistan. Furthermore, the Islamic State has declared war on the Taliban and the two groups are active adversaries in the region. Gannon claims that Russia would not be opposed to the idea of utilizing the Taliban to fight off the Islamic State. As intelNews reported last month, Russia’s Federal Security Service warned that thousands of Islamic State fighters were operating in Afghanistan’s northern border regions and were attempting to destabilize former Soviet Republics with substantial Muslim populations.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 June 2019 | Permalink

ISIS threatens stability of former Soviet Republics, says Russian spy chief

ISIS Afghanistan

Thousands of Islamic State fighters are operating in Afghanistan’s northern border regions and are attempting to destabilize former Soviet Republics with substantial Muslim populations, according to Russia’s domestic spy chief. This warning was issued by Alexander Bortnikov, director of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), which functions as Russia’s primary counter-terrorism agency. Bortnikov made these remarks during a visit to the capital of Tajikistan, Dushanbe, for a meeting of the heads of intelligence agencies of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), an intergovernmental organization comprised of former Soviet Republics in the Eurasian region. The meeting was reportedly held behind closed doors, but Russia’s government-owned news agency TASS carried a summary of Bortnikov’s remarks.

The Russian intelligence chief said that, with the aid of the intelligence services of CIS states like Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and others, the FSB was able to uncover and suppress eight Islamic State cells in the past year, which operated in the Central Asian region. However, the reach of the CIS countries does not extend to Afghanistan, said Bortnikov, where as many as 5,000 Islamic State fighters are congregating along the country’s border with three CIS states, namely Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Many of these fighters are Turkmens, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Russians, and other citizens of CIS states, who previously fought with the Islamic State in Syria and elsewhere, and now form integral components of the Islamic State’s fighting force in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It appears that the Islamic State is now attempting to exploit the mountainous and porous borders of northern Afghanistan in order to destabilize neighboring countries, he said. These fighters intend to exploit “migrant and refugee flows [in Central Asia] in order to operate covertly from the Afghan battle zones to neighboring countries” and from there possibly to Russia, according to Bortnikov.

These covert activities of Islamic State fighters have already caused an escalation of tensions in the region and can be expected to continue to do so, as these groups radicalize and co-opt Muslim communities in CIS countries, noted Bortnikov. He added that popular responses to Islamist radicalization are prompting increasing incidents of “anti-Islamic terrorism”, which further-fuel religious and ethnic tensions in the region. As a reminder, last week the Islamic State announced that its so-called Khorasan Province fighters would be amalgamated into a new armed group calling itself Islamic State – Pakistan Province. Earlier this month, the group also proclaimed the establishment of a new overseas province in India’s Jammu and Kashmir state, called “wilayah al-Hind” (province of Hind). In addition to these two forces, there are currently an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan’s Pashtun regions.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 May 2019 | Permalink

Afghan government in crisis as senior security and spy chiefs tender mass resignations

Mohammad Haneef AtmarThe government of Afghanistan is facing one of its most serious crises since the end of the Taliban reign in 2001, as the country’s most senior security and intelligence officials tendered their resignations this week. The unprecedented move followed a dramatic escalation in attacks against Afghan government installations by Taliban and Islamic State forces, which have resulted in dozens of casualties throughout the Central Asian country. On Saturday, Mohammad Haneef Atmar, long time national security adviser to President Ashraf Ghani and one of the Afghanistan’s most recognizable and powerful political figures, tendered his resignation. Many seasoned observers were surprised when President Ghani, who is a close political ally of Atmar, accepted his resignation and replaced him with Hamdullah Mohib, who until recently was Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States.

But the political crisis deepened on Sunday, when three more senior officials tendered letters of resignation. Tariq Shah Bahrami, Minister of Defense, Wais Ahmad Barmak, Minister of the Interior, and Masoom Stanekzai, head of Afghanistan’s National Security Directorate, all resigned their posts. All three have been subjected to intense criticism by Afghanistan’s political opposition and national media, for having failed to stop the anti-government insurgency, which is intensifying in nearly every one of the country’s provinces. Criticism of the three men became even sharper last week, after the Taliban launched a spectacular rocket attack on the Presidential Palace in the Afghan capital Kabul, which was heard in the background during President Ghani’s speech to commemorate the Muslim festival of Eid.

Late on Sunday, however, a presidential spokesman told media representatives that President Ghani had rejected the three officials’ resignations. Instead, he demanded that they stay in their posts and redouble their efforts to enhance the security of Afghanistan. Later that same evening, the Presidential Palace issued a written statement to the media, which said that President Ghani “did not approve the [officials’] resignations”. Instead, he “gave them the necessary instructions to improve the security situation” in the country. Meanwhile on Tuesday US Defense Secretary James Mattis insisted during a press conference in Washington that the current US strategy in Afghanistan is working and that the Talian would eventually be forced to negotiate, thus ending the country’s ongoing civil war.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 August 2018 | Permalink

Russia, US, deny conducting mystery airstrikes in Tajikistan

Afghanistan TajikistanRussia, the United States and Tajikistan have all denied that they were behind a series of mystery airstrikes that took place along the Tajik-Afghan border on Sunday, while the identity of the targets also remains unknown. The 800-mile border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan consists of mountainous terrain. Unlike the Afghan-Pakistani border, which is rife with skirmishes and firefights, the Afghan-Tajik border is usually peaceful and sparsely guarded. But on Sunday, August 26, local officials from both sides of the Afghan-Tajik border reported that fighter jets conducted a series of airstrikes. News media in Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe said that Tajik border guards exchanged fire with Taliban fighters, killing as many as eight, but losing two officers in the process. However, on Monday a Tajik border police official denied media reports and said that the border incident involved Tajik lumberjacks who were attacked by unknown assailants from Afghanistan.

Adding to the mystery, Afghan officials said on Sunday that fighter jets bombed Afghan territory adjacent to the Tajik border. They added that they did not know if the fighter jets were Russian or Tajik. However, Tajikistan has a nominal air force consisting of no more than four Czech-made light-attack aircraft, which have not been used in over a decade. That leaves Russia, which maintains an air base in the suburbs of Dushanbe, 100 miles from the Afghan border. But on Monday, Moscow denied any involvement in the incident, as did Tajikistan. Russian officials placed the blame on the US, saying that the American-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) force in Afghanistan is known to regularly launch airstrikes throughout Afghanistan. But US Pentagon officials said that they were not involved. When asked by reporters in Kabul, Afghan government representatives said that Afghanistan lacked the ability to monitor its airspace due to a lack of radar equipment. They called on the US-led NATO force to investigate Sunday’s incident.

Meanwhile, the identity of the persons targeted in the alleged airstrikes is also in doubt. On Monday, the Taliban denied that they had engaged with either Afghan or Tajik government forces along Afghanistan’s northern borderlands, saying that they had not authorized their fighters to operate in the area. Additionally, the Taliban have not been known to engage Tajik government troops in the past. Some observers have opined that the border skirmish may have been caused by drug smugglers who regularly transport drugs from Afghanistan to Russia or the Caspian Sea region through Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. However, there are no prior reported incidents of Russian, American or Tajik fighter jets having been deployed along the Afghan-Tajik border to combat drug traffickers.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 August 2018 | Permalink