Afghan President Ashraf Ghani vowed, in an exclusive interview with BBC, to “bury” the growing Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) branch in Afghanistan, known as the Khorasan Province (ISIL-K).
The Khorasan Province, primarily based out of eastern Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, located along the Pakistan border, has clashed with government forces and fellow Sunni Taliban terrorists.
Ghani noted that the ISIL-K, which was recently designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department, is “not an Afghan phenomenon,” adding that its atrocities have “alienated the people” of war-torn Afghanistan.
In November, thousands of protesters in Afghanistan stormed the presidential palace in Kabul where Ghani resides, demanding protection from the government.
The Afghans were protesting the beheading, allegedly by ISIL-K, of seven civilians from the Hazara Shi’ite minority, including two women and a nine-year-old girl.
“Death to the Taliban,” “Down with the government,” and “Death to the Islamic State,” the crowd reportedly chanted the crowd.
They accused the Ghani administration of incompetence in the face of deteriorating security across the country and urged him to resign, reported The New York Times.
Ghani told BBC that the U.S.-trained Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF), which includes military and police units, have been focused on combating ISIS in the last week, adding that the ANDSF “have managed to inflict very severe damage on them.”
Various assessments have suggested that, despite billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars invested on developing the ANDSF since the war started in October 2001, the force is still unable to operate independent of U.S. military assistance.
Nevertheless, U.S. Brig. Gen. Wilson Shoffner, a top spokesman for the U.S.-led NATO mission in Afghanistan, told reporters last week that “the Afghan security forces have had significant success against Daesh,” using the Arabic acronym for the terrorist group.
In the interview with BBC, the Afghan president acknowledged that ISIS poses a “very significant threat” to Afghanistan that requires action on the national, regional, and international level.
He pointed out that ISIS is worse than al-Qaeda.
Last week, President Obama granted the Pentagon the legal authority to take offensive action against ISIL-K, marking “the first such authorization for military action against the extremist group outside Iraq and Syria … in a sign of how the fight has broadened,” The Wall Street Journal reported.
“Until now, such action by U.S. forces in the country technically has been limited to targeting al Qaeda and the Taliban—not Islamic State, whose operations primarily have been focused in Iraq and Syria,” pointed out the Journal, adding:
Only in cases in which commanders believed U.S. forces in Afghanistan were in danger could they conduct operations against members of the militant group, who just months ago were seen as establishing a sleepy outpost with only loose affiliations to Islamic State.
Last year, in response to the growing ISIS threat and an increase in Taliban attacks, President Obama altered his original plan of drawing down the U.S. military footprint to about 5,500 troops by the end of 2015.
Under the new plan, Obama has decided to leave behind the estimated 9,800 American troops already there through most of this year. He said the number of U.S. troops would go down to 5,500 troops after 2016.
The strength of the Khorasan province is growing, according to the Pentagon and U.S. Gen. John Campbell, the top commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Nevertheless, Brig. Gen. Shoffner told reporters last week, “We currently characterize them as operationally emergent.”
“I’ll define that as not having the ability to orchestrate or control operations in more than one part of the country at a time,” he added. “We’re not seeing Daesh elements in Iraq or Syria orchestrating events here in Afghanistan.”
His comments contradicted Gen. Campbell, who told the Associated Press (AP) last month, that “foreign fighters” from Syria and Iraq have linked up with Afghans who have declared loyalty to the group in Nangarhar, adding that there are “indications” that ISIS is trying to consolidate ties with the group’s leadership in Syria and Iraq.
The top U.S. general recently estimated that up to 3,000 ISIS fighters are in Afghanistan.
Echoing a recent Pentagon report and Gen. Campbell, Brig. Gen. Shoffner did note that ISIS’ presence in Afghanistan is primarily concentrated in Nangarhar.
“We have seen Daesh in other parts of the country,” he explained. “What we’ve seen in other parts of the country are small pockets that mainly consists of low-level recruiting and propaganda; we haven’t seen it organized.”
A United Nations report claimed that ISIS is growing and actively recruiting in nearly 75 percent (25) of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.