18 July 2015

U.S. Intensifies Airstrikes Against ISIS Targets in Afghanistan

Joseph Goldstein
July 16, 2015

U.S. Steps Up Airstrikes in Afghanistan, Even Targeting ISIS

KABUL, Afghanistan — The American military has intensified its airstrikes inAfghanistan in recent weeks, expanding them to include a bombing campaign against Islamic State militants who defeated the Taliban in fighting over a sliver of territory in the eastern part of the country.

Throughout June, American drones and warplanes fired against militants inAfghanistan more than twice as much as they had in any previous month this year, according to military statistics.

The increase in the use of American air power comes more than six months after President Obama declared that the American combat mission in Afghanistan had ended. The vast majority of the strikes appear to remain focused on Talibanforces, the traditional targets of American airstrikes here for more than a decade. But several have targeted insurgent commanders who defected from the Taliban to swear allegiance to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

American officials have said that the strikes against the Islamic State were part of a defensive policy to protect the coalition forces from harm. But Afghan officials said the strikes against Islamic State targets came partly at the urging of the Afghan domestic intelligence service, which thought it was time to remove them or risk the Islamic State’s gaining a foothold in eastern Afghanistan.

“We needed to take action,” said one Afghan official who has been briefed on some of the intelligence that preceded the strikes. “The willingness on the part of the Americans to provide the air support is always there.”

American military officials had played down the Islamic State’s activity, but it flared quickly in the eastern Nangarhar Province in the late spring.

Since then, American missiles have struck two large-scale gatherings of Islamic State fighters in the province, killing top commanders.

“The department anticipated a summer uptick in insurgent activity, and we were prepared to protect our forces,” said a Pentagon spokeswoman, Henrietta Levin, accounting for the increase in airstrikes. She added, though, that the United States was closely monitoring the growth of the Islamic State in Afghanistan to see if it has a “meaningful impact.”

The pace of airstrikes presents a wild card in the tentative discussions between the Afghan government and the Taliban’s leadership over the possibility of peace negotiations.

The airstrikes could undermine the Taliban’s willingness to negotiate with the Afghan government and could indirectly strengthen the group’s legitimacy to an Afghan public that widely loathes the American airstrikes. Or, the airstrikes might give the Afghan government more leverage in negotiations.

In a statement released on Wednesday, which was said to come from the Taliban’s long-reclusive supreme leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban gave their blessing to exploring peace negotiations “concurrently with armed jihad.”

The Taliban reiterated their demand that foreign troops leave Afghanistan, in particular the country’s airspace. Mullah Omar’s statement emphasized that jihad remained an obligation because Afghanistan’s “land and airspace are controlled by the invaders.”

After years of taking a heavy toll on the insurgency, the recent expansion to target Islamic State forces has become a benefit for the Taliban in parts of Nangarhar. Insurgents with the Taliban and other groups there had lost considerable ground to the upstart cells of Islamic militants. Still, the largest share of the strikes continues to focus on the Taliban, according to interviews and local news reports. Others have targeted Pakistani militants who fled into eastern Afghanistan to escape a Pakistani military offensive.

Though the number of strikes in June reached a high point for 2015, it still represented an overall decrease from previous years. The 106 weapons fired this June were less than half the 272 fired in June 2014. In June 2011, the figure was 610 weapons fired.

Two senior Afghan officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, suggested that part of the new surge in airstrikes was linked to improved targeting information from the Afghan spy service, the National Directorate of Security. One official said, “Coordination and intelligence sharing with the Americans has increased in recent months,” particularly in Nangarhar.

In one recent strike, the Afghan intelligence service claimed to have tracked Hafiz Saeed Khan, the Islamic State’s chief for Khorasan, an old name for a region that includes Afghanistan and Pakistan, to a recent meeting of militant leaders.

“He was trying to escape in a vehicle after the first hit,” another Afghan official said. “There were six hits total, and we believe the fifth killed him.” Some social media accounts associated with the Islamic State, however, deny that Mr. Khan is dead.

The Islamic State’s momentum in Nangarhar has not been replicated elsewhere in Afghanistan, where the organization has been thwarted by the Taliban or is still in the recruitment phase. But in Nangarhar, over the course of at least two dozen skirmishes with the Taliban, the Islamic State emerged as the dominant presence in several districts.

In one district, the Islamic State fighters went door to door, having first “wrapped their faces with scarves,” and told villagers with ties to the Taliban to leave, Akram Haji, a resident, said. In some areas, the removal applied to almost everyone, since many families have a son or father who has fought for the Taliban or supported them.

“They offered us the choice of following their principles and joining the Islamic State or leaving,” another resident said.

Some residents recognized the new fighters as local residents or as men from surrounding districts. Others said the Islamic State’s ranks had swelled with Pakistani fighters.

The Islamic State imposed a few new rules in areas it controlled, including a ban on naswar, a style of smokeless tobacco. But many residents said the differences between the rival groups were hard to discern.

“It’s challenging to judge which one is really struggling for Islam,” said Mohammad Wazir, a farmer from Sherzad District, whose village was seized by Islamic State militants.

Mr. Wazir was interviewed in Rodat District, not far from his home, where many families that had lived in territory now held by the Islamic State have resettled.

The effect of the airstrikes on the Islamic State’s position in Afghanistan remains to be seen.

A member of Parliament from Nangarhar, Ismatullah Shinwari, described the drone strikes as “tremendously effective” and said that without them, he feared that the Islamic State might have grown strong enough to have “taken control of the capital of Nangarhar,” Jalalabad, an important Afghan city.

In public statements, as well as in a letter addressed to the Islamic State’s self-declared caliph, Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Taliban have warned the Islamic State to stay out of Afghanistan.

In the most recent issue of Dabiq, the Islamic State’s online English-language magazine, the group derided Mullah Omar as a minor leader lacking global vision. It said Mullah Omar “was at most one day a former leader of one of the Islamic lands,” and possibly dead. Mullah Omar has not been seen in public in years.

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