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IS Turns Afghan Schools Into Military Hotbeds

Afghan security forces survey a village in Nangarhar's Kot district after reclaiming it from the Islamic State militants.
Afghan security forces survey a village in Nangarhar's Kot district after reclaiming it from the Islamic State militants.

PAPIN, Afghanistan -- The trail of oppression and destruction left behind by the Islamic State (IS) in a remote Afghan region best illustrates the intentions of the ultra-extremists hard-bent on reshaping Muslim-majority countries into a single empire.

During their yearlong occupation of Papin, a small village in eastern Afghanistan, IS fighters used its school as their main lair. Days after overrunning Papin, in Haska Maina district, last summer, IS turned the region’s schools into sanctuaries for its fighters.

Soon after announcing the formation of its local branch in January 2015, the extremist group, which controls large parts of Syria and Iraq, overran Haska Maina and eight other districts in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar Province, close to the Pakistani border.

In Papin, the single-story concrete schoolhouse is pockmarked from bullets, and the carefully rearranged desks and benches behind its windows tell the story of its suffering.

“They always hid in civilian houses and buildings used by civilians,” said Afghan Army Brigadier General Nasim Sangin. “This made it difficult for us to attack them because we are tasked with protecting civilian properties and public service buildings.”

In the neighboring Kot district, which Afghan forces reclaimed last week, IS militants used mosques and affiliated madrasahs as their courts, offices, and execution grounds.

In Kot’s Lagharjoo village, IS used the large local mosque and adjoining religious school as the seat for their local court.

IS termed these Shari’a courts, claiming they meted out justice under Islamic law.

But locals only remember extreme oppression and suffering at the hands of young IS zealots, most of whom came from neighboring Pakistan.

“I even sense that this mosque and the trees around it, despite having been destroyed, are happy [after we claimed them back from IS],” said local tribal leader Malik Hayat Khan. “Our hearts cry when we recall the atrocities they committed in this compound.”

According to Khan, the senseless violence employed by IS to scare locals into subjugation exposed their claims to be fighting for the implementation of Islam.

“They committed almost every imaginable atrocity here,” he said. “They are the enemies of humanity and Islam.”

Kot and Haska Maina are the latest among the six Nangarhar districts reclaimed by Afghan forces from IS so far this year.

Locals have said the Taliban violence pales in comparison that of IS, which prompted nearly half a million civilians to flee their homes.

IS fighters, locally known by the Arabic acronym Daesh, terrorized locals by seizing property and meting out extreme punishments such as beheadings and forcing people to sit on explosives that were then detonated.

Most victims were members of the Pashtun Shinwari tribe who, by the end of last year, united to form small armed groups to rid their homeland of IS.

The Taliban, perhaps, played a bigger role in defeating their former allies. Most IS fighters in Afghanistan were reportedly previous members of various Pakistani Taliban factions. They were aided by their Afghan allies in escaping Pakistani military operations in the nearby tribal areas that intensified in 2014.

But once in Afghanistan they fell out with their hosts. Since the beginning of 2015, the Taliban and IS have clashed across Afghanistan with the hard-line Afghan group mostly prevailing over IS.

Since the beginning of this year, Afghan military operations aided by NATO airpower have helped to reclaim lost territories from IS. Afghan officials claim to have killed more than 300 IS fighters in the ongoing offensive in Nangarhar.

Nangarhar Governor Salim Khan Kunduzi is now determined to rehabilitate local communities to prevent IS from returning.

“I want people to return to their farms,” he told community leaders in Kot on August 2. “We will rebuild your schools, mosques, madrasahs, and hospitals.”

Mohammad Ayub Hussainkhel, a senior security official in Nangarhar, said that the Afghan Army, police, intelligence and border forces are working on a comprehensive plan to block the return of IS fighters.

“We would like our people to be able to live in peace,” he said.

Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Shah Mahmood Shinwari’s reporting from Papin and Kot, Afghanistan.