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Beheadings, Accusations Of 'Defaming Islam' Mark The Afghan Battle Against IS

A purported IS training camp in an unknown location in the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands.
A purported IS training camp in an unknown location in the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands.

The nearly year-old battle against the Islamic State (IS) militants in an eastern Afghan province is now marked by beheadings and declarations that the hard-line fighters have deviated from the teachings of Islam.

Some residents of Nangarhar -- a strategic Afghan province connected to Pakistan through the Khyber Pass -- are apparently bent on taking the fight against IS into their own hands. They accuse authorities of failing to counter the onslaught of the ultra-radical militants, who now control large swathes of Syria and Iraq.

Hundreds have died and tens of thousands of Pashtuns have been displaced in Nangarhar after the Afghanistan-Pakistan chapter of IS, who call themselves Wilayat Khorasan, swiftly established control over a few districts bordering Pakistan. IS efforts to establish a foothold have been defined by extreme atrocities against civilians, who have been subjected to beheadings, and prisoners being blown up with explosives.

In the latest sign that some residents are ready to adopt extreme violence to counter IS, fighters loyal to an influential Nangarhar lawmaker beheaded four IS militants and publicly displayed their severed heads on December 26.

Mullah Jan, a member of the militia loyal to Haji Zahir Qadir, says the beheadings were retaliation for similar killings by IS militants in Nangarhar's Achin district, which emerged as the main theater for IS attempts to establish a foothold in Nangarhar.

"They [the IS militants] severed the heads of our comrades after killing them. So we did the same to their fighters," he said.

Qadir, the deputy speaker of the lower house of Afghan parliament, told journalists on December 27 that IS attacked his militiamen in Achin on December 26. He said IS captured and beheaded four of his supporters after a three-hour gun battle, which prompted his supporters to retaliate in kind.

"If they behead you or your son, do you expect us to cook sweets for them?" he said. "Sweets are not distributed during war. People die."

Qadir's militia later displayed the severed heads along a main road in Achin, which drew the ire of local officials.

"If they were criminals, they should have been punished by the judiciary -- not by a kangaroo court," said district chief Haji Ghalib. "This barbaric incident should not have happened."

After criticizing authorities for failing to counter the rise of IS in Nangarhar, Qadir declared war against the jihadist group last month. He has so far attracted scores of fighters from the Achin, Nazyan, and Pachir Wa Agam districts.

Muhammadullah, a Qadir militiaman in Achin, says Kabul should be embarrassed of its failure to tackle IS.

"Our government, the president, and our army generals should be ashamed that the Pakistanis are infiltrating our homeland and beheading people here," he said. "If they are the enemy, why are they not being eliminated swiftly?"

Indeed, the mood in Nangarhar is hardening against the militants. Mawlawi Abdul Zahir Haqqani, a leading Nangarhar cleric, says fighting IS is "mandatory" for all Muslims because the jihadist group has deviated from the teachings of Islam. He says IS is "defaming Islam" by its actions.

"They are the enemies of your homeland and your religion," Haqqani told a large gathering in Nangarhar's capital, Jalalabad, on December 27. "It is obligatory for all Afghans to rise up and fight against them. It is your religious obligation to kill them if they attack your homes."

The nearly half a million members of the large Pashtun Shinwari tribe in Nangarhar are desperate to push IS out of the six Nangarhar districts they count as their homeland.

Malik Usman, a Shinwari tribal leader, says his community has tried everything and is now petitioning other Nangarhar tribes and communities to counter IS. "We waited [for the government to act] for more than two months. We are now asking you for help because [we feel that] our homeland is being sold [to the militants]."

The overstretched Afghan military seems to be doing its best to fight IS in Nangarhar. On December 28, its fledgling air force claimed to have killed 68 IS fighters in airstrikes, which, it added, also took out heavy weapons. The claims could not be independently verified.

The Afghan Defense Ministry also claimed to have blocked the broadcasts of Voice Of The Caliphate radio. Earlier this month, the IS radio station began its 90-minute FM broadcasts in Nangarhar to spread anti-government propaganda and attract new recruits.

Defense Ministry spokesman Dawlat Waziri said Afghan forces are doing their best to counter the IS threat.

"We are doing whatever we can, and you will see positive results in the coming days.”