In turf war with Afghan Taleban, Daesh loyalists gain ground
Witnesses who fled fighting in Nangarhar province said that hundreds of insurgents pledging allegiance to Daesh pushed out the Taleban.
Afghan National Army soldiers (ANA) inspect passengers at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Jalalabad province, eastern Afghanistan. -Reuters
Surkh Dewal, Afghanistan - Fighters loyal to Daesh have seized substantial territory in Afghanistan for the first time, witnesses and officials said, wresting areas in the east from rival Taleban insurgents in a new threat to stability.
Witnesses who fled fighting in Nangarhar province said that hundreds of insurgents pledging allegiance to Daesh pushed out the Taleban, scorching opium poppy fields that help to fund the Taleban’s campaign to overthrow the Afghan government.
They also distributed directives purportedly from Daesh’s Middle East-based chief Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, although it was not clear whether he issued them for the Afghan theatre or if previous edicts may have been translated.
“They (Daesh loyalists) came in on many white pickup trucks mounted with big machine guns and fought the Taleban. The Taleban could not resist and fled,” said Haji Abdul Jan, a tribal elder from Achin district.
Jan, who saw the early June clashes before fleeing to the provincial capital of Jalalabad, said some villagers welcomed the new arrivals.
“Unlike the Taleban, they don’t force villagers to feed and house them. Instead, they have lots of cash in their pockets and spend it on food and luring young villagers to join them.”
Their accounts are the clearest sign yet that, beyond a few defections by low-level Taleban leaders and sporadic attacks, Daesh sympathisers pose a more persistent threat.
Daesh loyalists, mostly former Taleban disillusioned by the movement’s unsuccessful bid to return to power in Kabul, are accompanied by dozens of foreign fighters, witnesses said.
The Daesh’s black flag has been hoisted in some areas, and foreign fighters preach in mosques through translators.
The identity of the non-Afghan insurgents is not known. Hundreds of militants from around the world already hide out along the Afghan-Pakistan border.
Local officials said fighters following Daesh have seized some territory from the Taleban in at least six of 21 Nangarhar districts.
They are Kot, Achin, Deh Bala, Naziyan, Rodat and Chaparhar, according to provincial council chief Ahmad Ali Hazrat and Nangarhar member of parliament Haji Hazrat Ali. Local army spokesman Noman Atefi said Daesh had established a presence in “seven or eight” districts.
Battles between the rival militants are ongoing in Khogyani and Pachir Agam districts, they said.
While the central government controls the vast majority of Afghanistan, events in Nangarhar are ominous for security forces struggling to contain the Taleban insurgency after most Nato forces withdrew six months ago.
Daesh supporters have proved ruthless, reportedly beheading several Taleban commanders, and Daesh’s success in taking over swathes of Iraq and Syria underlines the risks to Afghanistan.
Government officials and the US-led training force question whether Daesh can gain a significant foothold in Afghanistan, given that direct links with the Middle East have not been proven and the Taleban remains dominant.
However, Daesh loyalists in Nangarhar are described as organised and well funded.
Under the shade of a mud wall in a makeshift refugee camp in Surkh Dewal outside Jalalabad city, about 30 men recalled encounters with Daesh fighters. The areas they come from are considered too dangerous for journalists to visit.
Abdul Wali, a green-eyed refugee from Achin in his 20s, said he listened to foreign fighters preaching in Arabic in local mosques through translators.
“They tell them about Islam and what people should do and should not do,” Wali said.
Daesh fighters also distribute pamphlets “to warn the people against many crimes”, said tribal elder Haji Abdul Hakim from Kot district.
One letter smuggled from Pachir Agam district was purportedly from Baghdadi.
“All Mujahideen fighters are invited to carry out this holy war under one flag, which is the Daesh,” it said.
THIEVES AND THUGS
The Taleban, who issued their own warning to Daesh not to interfere in Afghanistan, acknowledged losing ground in Nangarhar, but said their rivals were not Daesh.
“They are thieves and thugs ... We will soon clear those areas and free the villagers,” said Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid. The movement ruled Afghanistan from the mid-1990s until 2001, when a US-led campaign helped oust it from power.
Witnesses said Daesh fighters had established a stricter regime in Nangarhar than the Taleban, who, while still harsh, softened their rule to gain popular support, said Malek Jan, a tribal elder who fled Spinghar, another affected area.
“They burned poppy fields in Shadal village and banned shops from selling cigarettes,” Jan said.
Opium smuggling and taxing poppy production are key sources of Taleban revenue.
Daesh loyalists in Nangarhar appeared to have other sources of money. Several people said they had plenty of cash, and some heard militants were selling gold, unusual for the area.
It is unclear where the money is coming from.
While there is little evidence of direct links between Daesh in the Middle East and militants fighting under its banner in Afghanistan, officials in Kabul worry that money and personnel may begin to flow, taking the war to a new level.
The Nato-led military assistance force said it viewed reports of more money flowing to Daesh offshoots as “exaggerated”, spokesman Col. Brian Tribus said.
He added Nato had “not seen any indication” that Daesh had completely driven out the Taleban from parts of Nangarhar, and said any foreign fighters were likely to be global militants established in the region, and not newcomers.
AFGHAN FORCES HOLDING BACK?
Government forces in Nangarhar confirmed clashes between the Taleban and Daesh offshoots, but army spokesman Atefi said they were not targeting Daesh militants.
Achin’s district chief, Malek Islam, also said Afghan forces were not confronting Daesh fighters, who he said were “almost everywhere in the district”, but were targeting the Taleban.
“They haven’t attacked us, and we haven’t engaged them either,” he said.
Islam spoke by phone from Achin’s district centre, which the government holds despite having limited control beyond, as is the case in several districts in Afghanistan’s east and south.
Interior Minister Noorul Haq Olomi, however, said police had engaged the militants.
“We have launched a couple of clearance operations in some districts of Nangarhar and we will continue to do so to deny any terrorist group territory,” Olomi said in a statement.
Michael Kugelman, a South Asia scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, said while most Afghan militants remained loyal to the Taleban, the Daesh “brand” of more brutal tactics appealed to some younger fighters.
Adding money into the mix could add to the attraction.
“For some hardened and impressionable radicals, bling could be as appealing as barbarity,” he said.