A former Afghan spymaster is skeptical that the Islamic State (IS) militants are capable of carrying out complex urban attacks such as the recent deadly assault on a military hospital in the capital, Kabul.
Rahmatullah Nabil, who led Afghanistan’s National Security Directorate (NDS) intelligence service for four years, says IS lacks the clout and wherewithal to conduct a complicated operation such as the March 8 attack on Sardar Daud Khan’s hospital that killed more nearly 50 people and injured scores more.
“I can tell you with confidence that Daesh (Arabic acronym for IS), which currently operates in Afghanistan under the name of Khorasan Province, is not capable of pulling such an attack,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “They don’t have the influence and resources. I think such attacks are conducted by the Haqqani network.”
Nabil says the Haqqani network, named after veteran Taliban leader Jalaluddin Haqqani and mentored by Pakistan’s secret service, is capable of carrying out such attacks.
In recent years, Afghan and U.S. officials have blamed the network for many high-profile attacks in the Afghan capital, Kabul. Islamabad, however, claims to have dislodged all militants from the network’s former stronghold of North Waziristan in northwestern Pakistan.
As the March 8 attack raged at the 400-bed hospital in the heart of Kabul, the IS news agency Amaq made the statement "Islamic State commandos attack the military hospital in Kabul." The Taliban, on the other hand, rejected any involvement in the six-hour assault. The attack involved several fighters disguised as doctors.
Survivors told the AFP news agency that the attackers chanted "Allahu Akbar" (God is great) and "Long live the Taliban" in Pashto. They claimed the fighters spared two wards on the first floor where Taliban patients were treated.
Nabil, however, says that before resigning from his office in late 2015, he learned a lot about how the Haqqani network facilitated the emergence of IS along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in late 2014.
He says Pakistan’s Zarb-e Azb offensive in North Waziristan forced numerous factions of Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to seek shelter in remote regions along the porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border. While the TTP was not part of the Afghan Taliban, it maintained close links with the Haqqani network and most Afghan Taliban commanders.
“One of these Taliban groups belonged to the Orakzai tribal region and moved into the border regions of Afghanistan [in eastern Nangarhar Province],” he said. “As this faction transformed into Daesh, some Haqqani commanders were told by their [Pakistani handlers] to cooperate with this faction.”
Nabil says that since the emergence of IS, the Haqqani network is surprisingly silent over such attacks, which are increasingly being claimed by the IS. “As the head of the NDS around that time, I learned some Haqqani commanders were told by their handlers that they should no longer accept responsibility for complex urban attacks,” he said.
Islamabad, however, has rejected any links with IS or failing in countering the Haqqani network. In September, former Pakistani military spokesman Lieutenant General Asim Bajwa said authorities have arrested 309 people suspected of being associated with IS.
"They tried to make an ingress, and they failed and have been apprehended so far," he told journalists, adding that Islamabad was perusing an “indiscriminate operation” against all militants.
Since then, however, IS has claimed responsibility of several deadly attacks across Pakistan. Most recently the group claimed it carried a suicide bombing inside a Sufi shrine in southern Pakistan. On February 16, at least 90 people died inside the revered Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine in Sindh’s Sehwan town.
Since its emergence in Nangarhar in late 2014, IS has come under relentless operations by the Afghan government, NATO forces, and local volunteers. Some IS cells and leaders in other provinces have either been targeted in NATO airstrikes or Afghan ground offensives. Some local Taliban factions have also played a vital role in countering them. Afghan and NATO military officials now estimate IS lost hundreds of fighters and most of the nine districts it controlled in summer 2015.
General Joseph Votel, the head of the U.S. military's Central Command, recently urged increased cooperation between Kabul and Islamabad to defeat IS.
"Although their [IS’s] operational capacity has diminished as a result of U.S., Afghanistan, and Pakistan military operations, we remain focused on defeating the group in both countries,” he told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee on March 9.
Nabil, however, says IS currently has fewer than 1,000 fighters in Afghanistan.
“The threat posed by Daesh is not as big as is often portrayed,” he said.