ISIS getting stronger in Afghanistan
Article RadarTHIS ARTICLE CONNECT:
The Islamic State’s Afghanistan affiliate has gotten stronger over the last few years despite the aggressive efforts of the U.S.-led coalition in the country, a State Department official told the Washington Examiner.
“ISIS has grown stronger over the last couple of years, despite a really withering military campaign, principally from U.S. forces, but with strong support as well from Afghan forces,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
Senior lawmakers hesitated to state it so bluntly, but they acknowledge that ISIS in Afghanistan is a particularly tough nut to crack.
“Afghanistan has never been finished, that’s one of the problems, so there’s not a strong governance, particularly in the rural areas,” said Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, a senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee. “So we’ve always had that vulnerability. We’ve been very successful in the Syria aspects and the Iraq aspects of ISIS, but they find vulnerable areas.”
The war-torn country’s drug trade gives the ISIS offshoot critical funding as well.
“I haven’t necessarily heard that they’re getting stronger, but we know that ISIS is a problem in Afghanistan,” Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, who chairs the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on emerging threats and capabilities, told the Washington Examiner. “And we do have to be able to cut out their revenue streams. So, illicit drugs, wherever they’re being funded from, we have to cut that out; but then we have to eliminate them as well.”
ISIS complicates an already-difficult security situation in a country that is trying to quell a Taliban insurgency. And the group is featuring in a broader competition for influence between Russia and the United States.
American generals and diplomats accuse Russia — as well as Pakistan and Iran — of “enabl[ing] the Taliban insurgency.” Russian diplomats have countered with allegations that the United States is delivering supplies to the ISIS fighters
“There is evidence that these helicopters dropped something into these areas, some helicopters without any identification signs landed in those areas and then took off from there,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on May 31, per state-run media. “Witnesses confirm that they returned to the bases where there were US troops, among others. Certainly, all of this raises questions.”
Russia’s top envoy at the United Nations renewed that charge this week.
“We have heard no clear explanations concerning arms deliveries by unidentified rotorcraft to Islamic State militants in Afghanistan totally controlled by our partners,” Ambassador Vasily Nebenzia said, according to TASS, a state-run media outlet. “In general, more resolute efforts are needed from the Afghan authorities and foreign contingents deployed in that country to clear northern regions from terrorist elements.”
U.S. officials and analysts dismiss such charges as baseless smears, particularly in light of the ongoing military campaign. U.S. forces dropped the largest non-nuclear weapon in the American arsenal on an ISIS tunnel network in April of 2017, killing 94 fighters with the “mother of all bombs.”
The barrage has accelerated over the last year. U.S. Air Forces Central Command reported that American planes dropped 653 bombs in October of 2017, compared to 203 in October of 2016, as the Atlantic noted.
Experts say Russia’s charges show it’s looking to challenge the U.S. in Afghanistan.
“An important component of their activity is information warfare,” Seth Jones, a former adviser to U.S. Special Operations Command in Afghanistan, told the Washington Examiner. “I think what this suggests more broadly is that the Russians have made a strategic decision to compete with the U.S. in North Africa, in Libya, in various places in the Middle east, in South Asia, and Asia more broadly.”
Ernst wants President Trump to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin about the issue at their scheduled meeting in July. “If that Russia-U.S. summit does comes to fruition, then this is a point that needs to be brought up with President Putin, that we don’t appreciate any meddling in Afghanistan,” she told the Washington Examiner.
Putin seems likely to reply to those complaints by arguing that the United States was wrong to intervene against ISIS in Syria over the objections of President Bashar Assad’s Russian-backed regime. Still, that doesn’t mean Russia would attempt to intervene overtly in Afghanistan, the way that the United States targeted ISIS in Syria, lawmakers and analysts say.
“That’s probably a line that I don’t see them willing to cross yet,” said Jones, who is now a counterterrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
But the Russians have chosen in recent years to begin providing at least “limited” support to the Taliban, according to Jones. “Even minimal support to the Taliban, an organization that is killing American soldiers on the ground — that’s a very serious development,” he said.
That support is coming at a time when U.S. officials see cause for optimism in America’s longest war. The success of a short-term ceasefire between the Taliban and the government in Kabul, the first of the 17-year conflict, has raised hopes that some Taliban leaders and fighters have the ability, and perhaps the interest, needed to stop the fighting.
“Number one, the Taliban has a lot of command and control because when the order went out for the Taliban to respect the cease-fire, they respected the cease-fire,” a State Department official told the Washington Examiner. “Number two, as strong as that command-and-control may be, it’s clear among the Taliban rank-and-file, there is a lot of interest in being Afghan, in celebrating Afghan cultural and religious practices, and seeing an end to war.”
The existence of ISIS in Afghanistan may have buttressed Russia’s motivation, or at least justification, for supporting the Taliban; the terrorist groups regard each other as enemies, in addition to the United States. Such an adversarial posture requires Russia to strike a balance between competing interests of counter-terrorism and opposition to the United States.
Northern Afghanistan is “in direct proximity” to the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization’s “zone of responsibility” as Lavrov has noted.
Concerns about terrorism notwithstanding, the Russians don’t want U.S. forces to get comfortable in Afghanistan long-term, Jones suggested.
“Having forces, from fighter aircraft to special operations forces, in Afghanistan — in a country that neighbors Iran, China, and is close to Russia — has some power-projection capabilities and interests for the U.S., as well,” he observed.
For now, then, the Russians are “hedging their bets” in Afghanistan, a senior State Department official recently told Congress, and choosing at least some degree of competition. That’s a sign that Russia will look for any opportunity to seize a role as a powerbroker at the expense of the United States, Ernst suggested.
“So, they’re not our friend,” Ernst said of Russia. “They are not our friend.”