Afghanistan Faces Long Slog with Resurgent Islamic State

The announcement by the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on June 29 that the organization would extend its mission Operation Resolute Support in Afghanistan beyond the end of 2017 is both timely and sensible. The decision to continue to fund the Afghan security forces up until 2020 is also hugely significant.

It creates a window in which NATO can further explore how the Afghanistan government is able to move toward controlling its own security, eventually allowing NATO nations to step back. As has happened before, premature withdrawal from operational theaters before a genuine and lasting security situation is established may be politically expedient in the short term, but always leads to a troop resurgent in the long term.

Defense Secretary James Mattis confirmed this when he noted that NATO must complete its Afghanistan mission. Drawing upon the images deeply held in many minds in the West, he suggested that failure to do this would result in more terrorist attacks in the West.

Mattis made such remarks as he developed plans to deploy more US forces to Afghanistan in what is widely touted as a mini-surge of several thousand forces – includingmore special forces units – to break what seemed a stalemate in the campaign. How long might NATO remain locked into the fight in Afghanistan is a valid question to ask, as well as when the Afghans might be able to sustain the security of their country alone.

With terrorist groups increasingly using a number of technologies, such as drones and chemical weapons, the next 9/11-style attack could, by implication, be much worse. How would the general public in the West view such an attack after all of the investment in blood and treasure?

Mattis summed up the view in the White House when he noted that, “Looking back on it, it is pretty clear that we probably withdrew our troops and cut down their numbers hastily.” In returning the mini-surge of troops, NATO appears to be pushing the Afghanistan government for yet more anti-corruption measures.

The response to this from the Afghan Ministry of Defense has highlighted the difficulties it faces tackling a problem that is clearly endemic in the Afghan security forces. “Our army is only fifteen years old and national police is about nine years old,” said acting Defense Minister Tariq Shah Bahrami, adding that like any children they “must have made a number of mistakes due to their young age.”

Such a line emerging from the defense ministry does not bode well and reflects a somewhat lethargic attitude toward corruption that can only help extend NATO’s engagement period. It also makes independent observers question whether NATO is locked into a cycle of support from which it can’t escape unless significant and wide-ranging changes occur within Afghan forces.

The model the United States and allies applied to develop a professional army in Iraq is instructive. The Iraqi Army has conducted itself well in the difficult operation to free Mosul and could provide best practices that could be transferred to Afghan security forces. The elite formations of the Iraqi Army are now a highly effective fighting force—one that has been bloodied in the most difficult urban terrain.

Mattis is right to highlight that NATO left Afghanistan too early. The decision not to equip the Afghan Air Force with a comprehensive close air support package was extraordinary. With Afghan fighters having worked alongside NATO air support for so long, denying them an indigenous capability was an ultimate folly. President Obama recognized this in June 2016 when he gave US forces in Afghanistan greater autonomy to strike at Taliban targets.

In Iraq, the increasing role played by the Iraqi air force in targeting so-called Islamic State (IS) forces on the ground is clear. If you build up local forces that can protect the country and deny terrorists safe havens, they must be given their own air power. A few old Russian helicopters does not cut it. In Iraq, the F-16s that were bought by the Iraqi government have proved invaluable in targeting IS formations.

When the Obama administration reduced troop levels in Afghanistan, it is arguable that the emerging patterns of terrorist attacks were on a favorable trend. The overall position of the Taliban steadily improved beginning with its peak in the summer of 2010 when it conducted more than 200 attacks a month between May and September.

Since that time, the Taliban has only managed to surge (briefly) above 200 attacks in a month on two occasions—August and September 2011 and – somewhat surprisingly – April to June 2013. Since that point, Taliban attacks have averaged about 94 a month, with February 2017 actually recording a low of 45 attacks – a level not seen since January 2009.

Even more encouraging is the reduction from an average of about 100 attacks a month in 2014 and 2015 to below 75 attacks a month since the start of 2016. In June, the average attacks plummeted to below 60 a month, showing further signs of progress.

But with insurgencies, the reduction in attacks is just a single measure of what might be called progress in a campaign. In 2016, the Taliban managed to 3,498 civilians and kill and wound over 15,000 members of the Afghan security forces, with at least 5,000 of those killed. Commenting on these figures, Mattis noted that the Taliban “had a good year last year.”

Ramadan was the bloodiest period to date this year, with more than 220 killed and at least 800 up until June 23, indicating that despite apparent progress, the security situation in some areas of Afghanistan remains fluid.

The commander of the 207th Zafar Army Corps, Muhammad Nasir Hedayat, has confirmed this picture, noting that 15 districts in western Afghanistan are at high risk. In June, he said that “three districts, Shindand, Koshk—e Khona and Gulran in Herat Province are at serious risk.

Afghan security force operations in these areas are imminent. While refusing to divulge specific operational details, the commander also said , “We have planned military operations against the enemies of Afghanistan, especially Islamic State.”

Local officials made similar references in the Darzab District of Jowzjan Province in northern Afghanistan, noting US drone strikes in the area attacking IS formations near Qoshtapa and Darzab. A local Taliban commander who defected to IS, Qari Hekmat, started IS operations in 2015.

These references to problems posed by IS reflect wider concerns that are impacting NATO troop deployment decisions. Concerns also point to Al Qaeda’s attempts to regroup in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden’s son, Hamza bin Laden, recently told the media that his organization is ready to start operations in the south – presumably a reference to Helmand province.

Al Qaeda, however, has a long way to go before it becomes a strategic threat within Afghanistan. The emergence of IS is much more pressing. With IS fighters seeking to move away from Iraq and Syria into Afghanistan as their situation in Mosul and their original capital city of Raqqa in Syria becomes more desperate, their infiltration into Herat in western Afghanistan is interesting.

Herat is the natural point for fighters fleeing Iraq and Syria through Iran to congregate. Its mountainous terrain is highly attractive and offers IS a great deal of maneuver room. The approximately 650-kilometer border between Iran and Afghanistan is also highly porous and often used for people and drug smuggling. It is also the area where the Afghan and Iranian governments have recently agreed to build more than 20 dams – an economically significant project for both countries. Work is already in progress on 15 of these dams.

Ironically, in travelling to Herat, IS fighters will have to move through the Iranian province of Khorasan – the ideological epicenter of the movement. For those tempted to remain in Khorasan, the prospects of attacking Iran loom large. Recent attacks claimed by IS on the Iranian Parliament and the tomb of Imam Khomeini may just be the start of a new focus of attacks in Iran against what IS ideologues believe to be their hated opponents, the Shia.

Yet again, there is a case to be made for NATO and its allies in the so-called Global War on Terror to engage with Iran. There is common cause in defeating IS, as President Trump showed in his speech in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.. NATO should also use its base in Afghanistan to coordinate operations against IS in neighboring countries. While that is in its nascent state, in the case of Pakistan it could also be developed elsewhere.

Herat, in western Afghanistan, provides another outlet for their operations, which have so far focused on Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan, with its immediate sanctuaries in Pakistan. More than 300 locals reportedly have taken up weapons to oppose IS.

IS claims to have captured Tora Bora – the region Osama bin Laden used as his escape route into Pakistan – were quickly negated when the Afghan security forces mounted a swift operation to remove IS fighters from the area. This period included the US Air Force’s first use of the 21,600-pound “mother of all bombs” in an April 13 attack on an IS facility nearby, killing nearly 100 of the 1,000 IS fighters believed to be in the area.

The move from Syria and Iraq into Afghanistan for IS makes sense. The country is riveted with insecurity, and, into those gaps, IS hopes to create the building blocks of what it refers to in its vision as the “Khurasan.” From a theological viewpoint, this is especially significant for IS, since they believe the re-emergence of the caliphate originates in the Khurasan fable of the “50 black flags.”

So, from a purely ideological perspective, IS operations allow it to develop a dialogue of a continuing caliphate, even as its forces in Mosul and Raqqa are on the brink of defeat. It seems like the notion of “Whack a Mole” still exists. When the molehills of Raqqa and Mosul are no longer part of the caliphate, other molehills will rapidly emerge. One of those is clearly Afghanistan.

Evidence supporting this can also be drawn from recent high-profile attacks in Kabul, including a June 15 attack which saw seven people killed in a Shia mosque in the Dasht-e Barchi area of Kabul. IS was quick to claim the attack through its news outlet, Amaq. If IS remains unchallenged, this could be the prelude to even more savage attacks.

IS military operations in Afghanistan can also become a new focal point for spreading an IS footprint into nearby countries, perhaps linking up with the Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang province, sympathetic Islamic fighters in India and Pakistan and also moving north of the Amu River into Central Asia. From such a platform, a new caliphate could readily emerge that is more readily exploited, both ideologically and militarily. NATO’s actions are clearly designed to strangle such a notion at birth.

All of this means that for some time to come NATO will remain in Afghanistan. It does not seem likely that even the revised deadline of the end of 2020 will see Afghanistan able to stand on its own two feet from a security viewpoint. The long hard miles in the Afghanistan campaign may only just be starting.

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