After braving government offensives and defeating Taliban onslaughts, an offshoot of the Islamic State (IS) militants is set to increase influence in northern Afghanistan close to the Central Asian border.
Officials, lawmakers, and activists say IS is increasing its control and influence in Jawzjan Province, where IS recently repelled a major Taliban offensive and now controls two of the region's 11 districts.
The rise of IS in the region, predominantly populated by Uzbeks, has been facilitated by Taliban infighting, an influx of battle-hardened Central Asian militants, government weaknesses, and a brutal campaign of intimidation and violence against civilians.
Like many Afghans, Abdullah goes by one name only. He is among the thousands of Qush-Teppa residents who fled the intense recent fighting between the Taliban and IS. The region is one of the Jawzjan districts.
“We were stuck between the warring sides; the Taliban were firing at us from one side while Daesh targeted us from the other side,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan while referring to IS with the Arabic acronym commonly used to identify it in Afghanistan.
“We are very unfortunate. I was only able to escape with my life and my family,” he said while waiting for aid in Jawzjan’s provincial center, Sheberghan. “We left all our belongings and livelihoods behind.”
Authorities in Jawzjan say that scores of militants from both sides died in the fighting last month.
Rehmatullah Hashar, a former district governor of Darzab, another district in Jawzjan, says a cell of eight IS fighters established the local branch nearly two years ago but today the number of their fighters is estimated to exceed 500.
“The founding members of Daesh were disgruntled Taliban,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “They were noticed after they began attacking government forces.”
Qari Hekmat, a key IS leader in Jawzjan, was the most infamous renegade Taliban commander. In late 2015, he joined remnants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) who had fled a Pakistani military offensive after sheltering in the country for decade.
Within a year, the ranks of the IS cell swelled, and they established near complete control over Darzab and within a year also gradually established control over the neighboring district of Qush-Teppa.
Ali Sher Intizar Jawzjani, an activist in Sheberghan, says IS shut all 64 schools in the two districts. He says thousands of students have been deprived of an education while more than 600 teachers are now jobless.
“Our schools have been shut for three months now,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “I hope the government will soon launch an operation to snatch these regions back from Daesh control.”
Jawzjan government spokesman Mohammad Raza Ghafoori agrees. He says Kabul and its Western allies need to act soon.
“We have repeatedly urged senior officials in the capital to act. We are calling on them yet again to launch an offensive soon so civilians displaced by fighting can return to their home,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan.
Darzab’s police chief commander Ismail says local forces currently lack the strength to push the militants out.
“We can’t put the lives of our soldiers at risk because there are not enough forces and no timely logistical supply from the central government if we conduct a counter-offensive against the militants,” he told the Afghan Analysts Network.
Aminullah, the government appointed district chief of Qush-Teppa, says local Taliban are keen on taking on IS but are afraid to attack after hundreds of their militants were beaten back by IS last month.
Hashar, the former district governor, says IS is already preparing for the next battle. He says local IS ranks are boosted by the presence of Uzbekistani militant Abdul Malik, whose father, Tohir Yuldash, led the IMU until his death 2009.
In Sheberghan, Malik is rumored to be camped in Darzab’s Sardara region along with 70 Uzbekistani families.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this based on Alim Rahmanyar’s reporting from Sheberghan, Afghanistan.