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The Strange Alliance That Defeated IS In Afghanistan

Grab from a video that shows militants loyal to the Islamic State (IS) blowing up bound and blindfolded Afghan prisoners with explosives. The victims were from Nangarhar province.
Grab from a video that shows militants loyal to the Islamic State (IS) blowing up bound and blindfolded Afghan prisoners with explosives. The victims were from Nangarhar province.

Afghan leaders are keen on boasting about their success against a terrorist group that has shocked the world with its swift victories and penchant for extreme violence.

This month, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani reiterated that Islamic State (IS) militants are on the run from their last stronghold in eastern Afghanistan.

"Daesh is on the run. They are running for cover," Ghani told reporters alongside NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on March 18.

He added that "no quarter would be given" to IS fighters who are fleeing air strikes by U.S. warplanes and "massive" ground operations by Afghan forces.

IS’s presence in Afghanistan is quickly crumbling. Nearly 15 months after IS termed its Afghanistan-Pakistan branch Wilayat Khorasan, it has lost many key leaders and a large number of its fighters have been killed on the battlefield.

But the Afghan government and international forces are only two actors among a complex web of insurgent organizations, regional states, and global powers -- all working to prevent IS from repeating its blazing victories in Syria and Iraq in Afghanistan. Extreme IS atrocities aimed at subjugating Afghans also provoked a tribal rebellion.

The Afghan Taliban has viewed the rise of IS -- particularly the defection of some of their former leaders to the ultra-radical Islamist organization -- as an existential threat.

In June, current Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansur warned IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to resist creating a parallel jihadist organization because it "will pave the way for disagreements, schisms, and conspiracies."

While both organizations subscribe to Sunni Islam, the Takfiri-Salafism practiced by IS and Al-Qaeda is distinct from Deobandism, a puritanical form of Hanafi Sunni Islam practiced in South Asia and followed by the Taliban’s leaders and cadres.

In the subsequent months, the Afghan Taliban crushed IS cells in many southern and western provinces. Afghan officials, lawmakers, and even dissident Taliban leaders claimed that the Taliban campaign against IS was bankrolled by Iran, whose Shi'ite clerical regime had previously viewed the Sunni Taliban as a major threat.

"There were many battles between the Taliban and Daesh (the Arabic name for IS) this summer," said lawmaker Samillullah Samin, who represents the western Afghan province of Farah in parliament. “Everybody was convinced that Iran was supporting the Taliban to crush IS," he said.

It is no coincidence that the IS cells were no longer active in Farah and other Afghan provinces bordering Iran or in close proximity to the nearly 1,000 kilometers of border between the two countries.

Earlier this month, Fidai Mahaz, a Taliban splinter group, accused the Taliban of killing its fighters in the name of countering IS. "Today, Akhtar Mohammad's militias are hunting our mujahedin and killing them in the name of countering Daesh," a Fidai Mahaz statement said earlier this month.

Russia, one of Afghanistan's most powerful near neighbors, also adopted a similar approach. In recent months, senior Russian diplomats claimed to have established contacts with the Taliban to cultivate cooperation against IS.

Taliban commanders in northern Afghanistan reportedly met with Russian officials in neighboring Tajikistan recently. The Taliban appear to be cooperating with Moscow to prevent battle-hardened Central Asian fighters from returning to the Commonwealth of Independent States that previously comprised the Soviet Union.

Moscow's outreach to the Taliban is in line with its motives for joining the Syrian war: to counter jihadist organizations that threaten its security.

The Taliban appear to have kept their side of the bargain by decimating the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which was once the largest militant organization in Central Asia. In a series of battles in southern Afghanistan last fall, the Taliban claimed to have nearly eliminated the IMU's Uzbek fighters who were also affiliated with IS. There are unconfirmed reports that the Taliban also executed IMU leader Uthman Ghazi in November.

Pakistan, often seen as the main foreign backer of Afghan insurgents, has so far escaped blame for being behind the emergence of IS in Afghanistan. While some Afghan officials in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar have blamed Islamabad for covertly supporting IS operations, senior security officials in Kabul seem to distance themselves from such claims.

The IS Wilayat Khorasan even claimed responsibility for a January 13 suicide attack on the Pakistani consulate in Jalalabad.

The rapid setbacks for IS in Afghanistan give hope to Afghan officials that they will soon be able to crush the remaining IS fighters in Nangarhar.

Provincial police chief Fazal Ahmad Sherzad said the Afghan forces and local volunteers killed nearly 2,000 IS fighters during the past Afghan calendar year, which ended on March 19.

He said the IS fighters were killed in the Achin, Nazyan, and Kot districts, which the group overran last year. Achin was widely considered the de facto headquarters of Wilayat Khorasan.

"We have enough capable and well-supplied forces in the region," he said. “We also have 1,000 tribal volunteers backing the forces in Achin and Nazyan alone. We are working out everything [to crush IS]."

Lawmaker Asmatullah agreed that government forces have inflicted heavy losses on IS.

"Last year, we hoped Daesh would be wiped out. But it didn't happen. We hope the government will achieve that goal this year," he said.