ISIS resurgent in Afghanistan: US officials, media

"They have not succeeded yet," and "they have not yet presented a threat to the US homeland, but we are watching that very, very closely," Milley said.
When the Taliban first established themselves in Afghanistan, it was widely recognized that Pakistani intelligence was behind the new organization. (Photo: AFP)
When the Taliban first established themselves in Afghanistan, it was widely recognized that Pakistani intelligence was behind the new organization. (Photo: AFP)

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – ISIS is resurgent in Afghanistan, The New York Times reported on Monday. That point was confirmed by Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in Senate testimony the following day.

Atrocities Against Hazaras, Sufis in Afghanistan

During the past two weeks, which marked the second half of Ramadan, over 100 people have died in terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, the Times reported. 

ISIS has targeted Afghan minorities in particular: the Shi'ite Hazaras, with their Asian features, and Sufi mystics.

In Afghanistan, the terrorist group calls itself ISIS-K—i.e., ISIS-Khorasan. Khorasan is a pre-Islamic, Persian name that dates back to the Sassanids, who ruled the region before the Arab conquest.

"Khorasan" refers to the east—i.e., the Eastern Province of the Sassanid empire. In Persian, it means "Where the sun comes from." 

Yet little information is available, at least publicly, about ISIS-K. Who leads the terrorist group? Who are its rank-and-file? What is its relationship to ISIS in Syria and Iraq, where the terrorist group first arose? Does ISIS in Syria and Iraq exercise command and control over ISIS-K? Does it train ISIS-K fighters? Does it help fund ISIS-K?

These questions are not generally addressed, although the Times did add one helpful point of clarification: ISIS-K was established in 2015 by "disaffected Pakistani Taliban fighters."

Pakistan also Targeted—Demands Afghan Govt Stop Attacks

Two weeks ago, fighters in Afghanistan fired heavy weapons across the border into a Pakistani military outpost, killing three soldiers, the Associated Press reported.

AP suggested that another group of extremists, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), was responsible. Founded in 2007, the TTP recruits from tribes along the Pakistan-Afghan border, and it is opposed to the Pakistani military.

The TTP attack marked the second time that month that Afghan-based extremists had targeted Pakistani forces. The first occasion was an ambush that killed seven soldiers. Pakistan retaliated on April 16 with bombing raids inside Afghanistan—in the eastern border provinces of Khost and Kunar.

Following the second attack, the Pakistani military warned, "Pakistan strongly condemns the use of Afghan soil by terrorists for activities against Pakistan and expects that the Afghan Government will not allow the conduct of such activities in the future."

Indeed, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has responded similarly to rocket attacks on targets in the Kurdistan Region coming from northern Iraq: it demands that the Baghdad government take the measures necessary to stop them. 

Following Sunday's rocket attack on an oil refinery in Erbil province, Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Masrour Barzani called on Baghdad "to take the necessary steps to inflict penalties against the outlawed groups" responsible for the attack while also calling for the formation of "a joint committee to take the necessary measures to control those areas that have become a threat to the stability and security of the Kurdistan Region and Iraq."

Read More: PM Barzani calls for 'practical steps' to end rocket attacks against Kurdistan Region

Milley Confirms Media Reports on ISIS' Resurgence

In testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee on the Defense Department's budget for the next fiscal year, Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked about Afghanistan.

Was a threat re-emerging there? "We're seeing initial indications" as have also appeared in the media, Milley told Sen. Lindsey Graham (R, South Carolina), "and you're privy to some of the intelligence, which I won't go into here, but ISIS and other groups are trying to put themselves back together."

"They have not succeeded yet," and "they have not yet presented a threat to the US homeland, but we are watching that very, very closely," Milley said.

The Taliban, evidently, are proving unable to bring peace in Afghanistan in the face of a group that purports to advocate an even stricter form of Islam than they do. 

As a World Bank official from Lebanon recently complained to Kurdistan 24, there is more "radical Islam" in the world today than there was on 9/11 itself, when George W. Bush began the so-called US war on terror.

US Misunderstands: It's a Fight Over Power, Not Religion

Although most Americans, including US officials, see the conflict as a fight over the proper practice of Islam, it is, even more, a political fight: who gets control of power and resources. 

The ideology professed by one group or another also serves that purpose as a vehicle to lay claim to power. The US sees, however, only one part of the equation. Focusing so much on ideology while ignoring politics romanticizes radical Islam and legitimizes it as a casus belli.

Read More: Al-Qurayshi vs. al-Mawla: What's in a name? What the US doesn't understand about ISIS

Such was this reporter's experience a decade ago as a cultural advisor to the US military in Afghanistan, working at the headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). 

In 2010, a senior official from the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) arrived in the theater to supervise our work. He held to the conventional wisdom that the threat was ideology. His focus was Ibn Taymiyyah, the medieval Islamic scholar who provided the rationale for rebellion against unjust regimes even when they claimed to be Muslim. In that case, it was the Mongols.

Filled with that misunderstanding, this senior DIA official read all sorts of works about Ibn Taymiyyah and works rebutting him.

My strong advice to him was to put all that away. This was a decade into the Afghan war, and he simply failed to understand the country: its culture and people. It also suggested a much broader failure at his own agency, foreshadowing the US defeat a decade later. 

Afghanistan is a remote and underdeveloped land. It is largely illiterate: only 38% of the population can read and write, and that figure is even lower in rural areas, the home base of the Taliban.

Ibn Taymiyyah was irrelevant, I advised this DIA official. "You are the only person here reading that stuff," I said. "This society is illiterate," I stressed, and "most people believe the proper practice of Islam is whatever their mullah tells them, and even he may be illiterate."

His tour in Afghanistan was only for six months—which was part of the problem. Often US officials did not spend enough time in theater to develop a good understanding of the situation, and errors continued uncorrected.

We had dinner as the end of his tour approached. He thanked me for my advice and jokingly remarked that he had already shipped those books home. They had simply been wrong, reducing a multi-dimensional phenomenon—the complex tribal, ethnic, and sectarian politics of modern-day Afghanistan—to a simplistic problem: the ideology of a 14th century Islamic scholar.