KABUL, Afghanistan: According to US and Afghan authorities, the main bastion of the Islamic State in eastern Afghanistan collapsed in recent weeks, after years of concerted military offensives by US and Afghan forces and, more recently, the Taliban.
President Ashraf Ghani recently claimed that the Islamic State, often known as ISIS, had been "destroyed,quot; in Nangarhar province, the group's refuge in the east. And in an interview in Kabul on Sunday, General Austin S. Miller, commander of all US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said that the loss of the group's land that he stubbornly maintained for some years would severely restrict his recruitment and planning.
But General Miller also warned that ISIS could continue to be a threat in Afghanistan even if it does not own territory, with the attention required to track the militants in motion and the remaining urban cells of the group.
"It is instructable from Iraq and Syria: when you take away a lot of land, they move to smaller cells and appear in strange places, ”said General Miller.
General Miller's reluctance to affirm any major victory over the branch is indicative of the broader advances that the Islamic State cells have made in Afghanistan, and of a long history of militant groups in Afghanistan. Recover after seemingly unsustainable losses.
Western and Afghan officials see a combination of factors that led to the losses of the Islamic State in the east, which forced many of the combatants to move or surrender. A Western official estimated that the group's strength was now reduced to around 300 fighters in Afghanistan, from an estimated 3,000 earlier this year.
The presence of the Islamic State in Afghanistan has been cited by military officials and legislators as one of the reasons to keep US troops in Afghanistan after any peace agreement with the Taliban. Those officials have long argued that the Taliban could not defeat the group, and that the insurgents had not yet done much to distance themselves from Al Qaeda, the terrorist group responsible for the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
What worried officials most was the continued ability of the Islamic State to plan attacks and recruit inside Kabul, the Afghan capital, despite intense campaigns against the group there. Some of the recruits involved in the planning or execution of deadly attacks came from the best schools in the city, authorities say.
But for Karimullah, a resident of Jawdara, a small village in eastern Afghanistan, where a suicide bombing attributed to the Islamic State killed more than 70 people in October, battlefield victories, political positions or even the recent death of the Supreme leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, means little.
"Whether he is dead or not, what does it matter?" Said Karimullah, who uses only one name and lost his uncle in the explosion. "We were destroyed."
His ambivalence is not uncommon here. For many Afghans, the name of the group or the differences with the Taliban are hardly worth mentioning. But there is no doubt that extreme violence The Islamic State has become a lasting facet of war, deepening the already atrocious suffering throughout the country.
The Islamic State has managed to penetrate parts of Afghan society that the war in general had not touched for years. And the resistance of the group, even in light of their recent defeats, It raises the grim possibility of an endless war, even if the Taliban negotiate peace.
Away from the central ISIS branch in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State in Afghanistan began as a collection of Pakistani Taliban fighters deprived of their rights that pledged allegiance to Mr. al-Baghdadi in early 2015. Since then it has slowly become a formidable threat in the mountains of Afghanistan. This, with a range that extends throughout the country, even in Kabul, the capital.
Although the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria sent money to its Afghan affiliate to support its initial growth, the connection between the two groups is minimal, said Arian Sharifi, who was the director of threat assessment for the Afghan National Security Council until the end of last year.
According to officials, one of the group's goals is to maintain the territory in Afghanistan and other parts of South and Central Asia, trying to establish a caliphate very similar to the previous iteration of the group in the Middle East.
Sharifi thinks the Islamic State in Afghanistan will try to become the global center of the group in the coming years, after losing territory in Iraq and Syria after concerted offenses backed by the West and air strikes.
The Afghan government said more foreign fighters were slowly arriving in Afghanistan to fight for the group there when the central branch lost territory in Iraq and Syria, an evaluation backed by US intelligence officials.
But, Sharifi warned, "The Islamic State in Afghanistan is much less ideological than its Middle Eastern counterparts," he said. he said in a recent interview. "It is also very influenced by regional policy."
US officials have divided on how much global threat the Islamic State represents in Afghanistan. While military officials emphasize the group's ambitions, some intelligence officials believe the group remains a major threat within the immediate region.
One thing that the Afghan branch shares with the central body is the hatred of Shia Muslims and the tendency to identify them for attacks. Even so, the militants are not exclusive with their violence, as was the case in Jawdara, a mostly Sunni village.
There, Karimullah and some other residents think it was more personal: the village had faced the Islamic State in a dispute over the city's water supply, and they believe that the bombing of the mosque was meant to break its spirit.
In its early days, the Islamic State in Afghanistan distinguished itself from other terrorist organizations operating in Afghanistan, including al Qaeda, following the example of its counterparts in Iraq and Syria: its media arm distributed horrifying videos of decapitations and fighters that forced the Victims to sit. explosives before detonating them.
But when the Islamic State detonated A suicide bomb at a wedding hall in Kabul during the summer, which killed 63 people, there was little mention of local ideology or goals.
"I think ISIS is just a name in Afghanistan," said Hajji Hussain, the wedding hall owner. "We don't know who they are, and we can't trust anyone."
He added: "They just enjoy killing people."
And that is what makes the Islamic State stand out in the endless war in Afghanistan. The Taliban often try to justify or deny attacks that killed civilians, Sharifi said.
The Islamic State, he added, does not bother.
While the number of Islamic State attacks declined in recent months, according to United Nations data, US officials attributed more than 20 high-profile attacks in Kabul alone last year.
For years, US and Afghan special operations forces, after a relentless campaign of air strikes, had maintained pressure to try to contain the group. The Taliban also increased their operations against the group in Nangarhar, according to Western and Afghan officials. Some reports He claimed that the insurgents had sent some of their elite units to the province to attack the Islamic State.
The moment when the Taliban intensified their offensives against ISIS was particularly interesting, as the insurgents tried to persuade the Americans in the peace negotiations that they would act against international terrorist groups.
But after any peace deal, the number of hard-line insurgents who desert the Islamic State to continue fighting has been a concern. between Afghan and Western officials.
But even so, with the restricted group, their damage to Afghanistan, through cruel bombing in the capital and unbridled death among innocents, has reformed the understanding of Afghan violence, a trauma that will persist in the coming years.
The reports were provided by Fatima Faizi of Kabul, Zabihullah Ghazi of Jalalabad and Asad Timory of Herat.