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Pakistani Militants Lead IS Push Into Eastern Afghanistan


Purported IS fighters that the Taliban claim to have captured in Nangarhar.

Purported IS fighters that the Taliban claim to have captured in Nangarhar.

JALALABAD, Afghanistan -- Pakistani extremists are at the forefront of a major Islamic State (IS) campaign to replace the Afghan Taliban in an eastern Afghan province.

Residents, lawmakers, and officials in Nangarhar say that in under three months, IS fighters have cleared large swaths of territories of the Taliban in the strategic region, connected to Pakistan through the Khyber Pass.

Ajab Khan is a resident of Achin district, which was among the first Nangarhar regions swept by IS this year.

He told Radio Free Afghanistan most IS fighters and commanders are Pakistanis while relatively few Afghan Taliban have switched allegiance to IS.

"Most of them are from the [nearby] Orakzai and Afridi [tribal] communities [across the border in Pakistan's Khyber and Orakzai tribal districts]," he said. "They have some Afghan fighters but the leaders are Pakistani, and they have moved to these regions along with their families."

Khan said most IS fighters in Nangarhar are led by Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, a Pakistani Salafi leader who founded Lashkar-e Taiba. The group is considered a leading jihadist faction of South Asia and is viewed as being responsible for the 2008 attacks in India's financial capital, Mumbai.

While Khan's claim couldn't be independently verified, Lashkar-e Taiba has a long history of operating in eastern Afghanistan, where the country's Salafist movement emerged and flourished during the war against Soviet occupation in the 1980s.

Khan said IS fighters are distinguished by their riches and zeal to impose harsh rules.

Khan said that unlike the Taliban's tolerance for opium cultivation and drug trafficking, IS has imposed a complete ban on narcotics. In some communities, IS fighters have even forced shopkeepers to stop selling cigarettes.

"They have warned farmers to refrain from planting opium and marijuana," he said. "They announced that women should not leave their homes without a male relative accompanying them and also called for an end to bridewealth," he said.

Women in most rural areas of Afghanistan often work in the fields or collect water and firewood for their families. Bridewealth or marriage payment is the money paid to a bride's family by the groom or his kin. The practice is widespread in Afghanistan.

Khan said that unlike the Taliban -- whose fighters survived by taxing locals -- IS pays up to $600 a month and provides weapons.

"The Taliban used to collect extortions from people in the name of Islamic taxes such as Ushr while they forced major drug smugglers to make donations in the name of Zakah (Islamic charity)."

IS, also known as ISIS and ISIL, controls large swaths of Syria and Iraq. It emerged in Nangarhar's Shinwar district three months ago. Since then, IS has swept the neighboring districts of Spin Ghar, Kot, Haska Maina, Achin, Deh Bala, Naziyan, Rodat, and Chaparhar. Their black flag has now replaced the white Taliban flag in the remote parts of these districts.

The two now clash in Pachir Wa Agam and Khogyani, two large Nangarhar districts bordering Pakistan.

A resident of Khogyani who requested anonymity said IS advocates adhering to the edicts of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and is aggressively questioning the Taliban.

"IS says the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (the formal name of the Taliban) is a surrogate of Pakistan's intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)," he told Radio Free Afghanistan. "They add that engaging in jihad (Islamic holy war) is a universal obligation but the Taliban have limited it to Afghanistan."

In a sign of the escalating turf war, the Afghan Taliban recently warned IS against extending its operations to Afghanistan.

"The creation of a parallel jihadist front or leadership [in Afghanistan] will pave the way for disagreements, schisms, and conspiracies," Taliban leadership council head Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour wrote to al-Baghdadi in an open later dated June 16.

A few days later, IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani responded.

"In the land of Khorasan (a historic region comprising Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the surrounding countries), there are people who claim to be fighting in the path of Allah and call themselves mujahedin," he said in a statement. "In reality, they are friends of the Pakistani intelligence. We have asked these people to repent. If they fail, our fighters should show them no mercy."

Mohammad Anwar Sultani, a political commentator based in Nangarhar's capital, Jalalabad, said the emergence of IS is a continuation of the games played by regional intelligence services.

"This game aims to finish off those militants who have rebelled against regional intelligence services," he said without mentioning Pakistan, whose powerful military is often accused of backing Afghan insurgents. "These spy services have decided to exchange the insurgents' white flag for a black one and are now fighting those who have disobeyed such orders."

Despite its decade-old association with the Afghan Taliban, there is no evidence of Islamabad's links with IS fighters in Afghanistan. In fact, many senior leaders of the purported IS branch in Pakistan and Afghanistan were former members of the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan. Islamabad blames its decade-old rebellion for killing tens of thousands of civilians and soldiers.

Lawmaker Zabihullah Zmari of the Nangarhar provincial government views the struggle as a continuation of covert warfare.

"This is just another clandestine struggle. They first adopted a popular posture to endear themselves to locals," he told Radio Free Afghanistan. "But now they are slaughtering soldiers, policemen, and tribal leaders. This [IS] is the most brutal faction, and the Afghan government needs to have a plan to confront it."

Afghan provincial officials, however, seem happy that the factions are now fighting each other. Nangarhar police chief Fazal Ahmad Sherzad said the ongoing fighting benefits the Afghan security forces and the public.

"Basically, the Taliban have splintered, and one faction now calls itself Daesh (Arabic for Islamic State)," he said. "In the fighting so far, each side has lost hundreds of fighters in districts such as Haska Maina and Khogyani. So their infighting only benefits the Afghan people and their security forces, and it heralds peace."

For Nangarhar residents, however, violence only brings misery. Hundreds of families have fled to Jalalabad to escape the fighting while students in many restive regions cannot go to school because of insecurity.

Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Shah Mahmood Shinwari's reporting from Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

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