US military downplays ISIS threat in Afghanistan

US military downplays ISIS threat in Afghanistan
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U.S. military leaders are insisting that ISIS’s Afghan branch is not strengthening, despite an attack in Kabul last week that left 80 people dead and wounded more than 200.

The attack attributed to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria targeted a peaceful protest of Afghanistan’s mainly Shiite Hazaras minority, who were asking the government to put a power line in provinces with large Hazara populations.

It was ISIS’s first attack in Kabul and the deadliest attack in the capital since the Taliban insurgency began in 2001.

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It’s also just weeks after President Obama announced that he would leave 8,400 U.S. troops in the country, not 5,500 as previously planned.

Analysts and U.S. military leaders are skeptical that the attack illustrates new strength for ISIS, but say it could make it tougher for a new president to withdraw troops from Afghanistan.

“The presence of a growing ISIS cell in Afghanistan will further complicate any plans to withdraw,” said Sean McFate, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “As long as both presidential candidates say they are going to defeat ISIS, that means they will remain in Afghanistan until that cell is gone."

On Thursday, Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said the attack does not mean the group is any stronger than before.

“Saturday's attack in Kabul is another indication of their brutality,” he told reporters at a Pentagon briefing.

“I would highlight, however, that the fact that they could conduct a high-profile attack should not be perceived as a sign of growing strength,” he said. “Sadly, we have seen high-profile attacks conducted in Belgium, France, Germany, even the United States. And this is not necessarily a sign of growing strength in Afghanistan. Indeed, their area is shrinking.”

Since January, U.S. forces have partnered with Afghan forces to target the branch in its bases in Nangarhar Province. Additionally, the branch has come under attack from the Taliban.

Nicholson estimated there are about 1,000 to 1,500 ISIS fighters in Afghanistan, down from 3,000 in January. The fighters control three to four districts in Nangarhar province, down from 10 in January, he added.

“We have helped the Afghan Security Forces to reclaim significant portions of the territory that was previously controlled by Daesh,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for the group. “We have killed many Daesh commanders and soldiers, destroyed key infrastructure capabilities, logistical nodes, and Daesh fighters are retreating south into the mountains of southern Nangarhar as we speak.”

Nicholson also told The Associated Press this week that ISIS in Afghanistan is connected to the core group in Iraq and Syria, meaning they are getting financing, strategy and communications. That appears to be a shift from just a month ago when a Pentagon report to Congress said the Afghan branch had a “limited” connection to the main group.

About 70 percent of the ISIS fighters in Afghanistan are former Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, also known as the Pakistani Taliban or TTP, Nicholson said. There’s also a sizable number from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, he said.

ISIS is just one of nine U.S.-designated terrorist organizations operating in Afghanistan, he added.

“I call this convergence,” he said. “And the convergence would be — again, amongst these nine terrorist groups and three violent extremists organizations, we see periodically members changing from one organization to another.”

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), who visited Afghanistan last week, also highlighted the myriad groups operating in Afghanistan when asked about the ISIS threat in the country.

“I would not say they thought that the ISIS threat was contained in one province,” said Thornberry, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “I think the challenge is you got to worry about, as I mentioned, Taliban, Haqqanis, al Qaeda, as well as [Lashkar-e-Taiba], these other groups, and ISIS is one of them, of course, but you can’t just focus on them.”

Patrick Johnston, a terrorism analyst at the RAND Corp., said Afghanistan would be a prime strategic stronghold for ISIS, but geographic constraints might make deeper connections more difficult than, for example, with the ISIS affiliate in Libya.

Despite knowing the branch is connected to the core group, he added, there are still questions about the volume of ISIS fighters and weapons moving from the core to Afghanistan.

“The concern is that it’s a rife strategic location for them,” said Johnston. “Whether they are rising is in Afghanistan is something to watch more closely, but it’s not necessarily something to do anything rash about because the biggest threat is by far is the Taliban.”

Still, he said, the group could carry out more attacks like the one in Kabul.

“They could pull off more of these scary attacks in Kabul and other symbolic areas, even though their numbers are very small,” he said.

Asad Ali, a United Kingdom-based analyst at IHS, said the ISIS branch is “not as strong as they would like to be” and doesn’t have the capability to match the Taliban at this point.

“It’s just another piece of the whole conflict over there,” he said. “It complicates things to an extent, but I don’t think they’re primary players in Afghanistan. They don’t have the strength to take on the Taliban right now.”

Further, he said, Afghanistan doesn’t have the same sectarian, Shiite vs. Sunni tension that Iraq or Syria does, making ISIS’s march to prominence harder than it was there.

Still, he added, the Afghan government will focus on the ISIS threat because it’s of interest to the international community.

“Why we hear so much about them is because the Afghan government realizes support is falling,” he said. “It’s in their interest to play up the Islamic State threat.”

Andrew Wilder, vice president of Asia Programs and an Afghanistan expert at the United States Institute of Peace, echoed those comments about the Afghan government’s interest in focusing on ISIS to get international attention.

“The existential threat in Afghanistan is the Taliban,” he said. “That’s not to say it’s not an issue. It could become an issue, particularly if the government collapses."

Wilder also said he’s not convinced ISIS is behind the Kabul attack since lately the group takes credit “any time there’s an attack anywhere” and there are anti-Shiite groups in Pakistan that would want to strike the Hazaras.

But if ISIS did carry out the attack, that could theoretically mean a little more resources and training than before, he said.

“But I wouldn’t immediately jump to that conclusion,” he added. “Doing one attack in Kabul on a soft target, it’s high profile and horrific, but in a way it’s a bit like the Nice attack. It’s horrific, but it’s also pretty easy to do.”