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While the Taliban’s return to power could be seen as marking the end of the war in Afghanistan, I have learned to be wary of what my country’s future might hold. Peace is meant to have been within our reach at several different points in the past 20 years; each time we have been left with only more violence. In May 2003, while I was still in the early days of high school, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld declared “major combat activity” in Afghanistan over. Then in 2014, tens of thousands of civilian, insurgent and military deaths later, NATO prepared to officially transfer responsibility for our country’s security to the Afghan army, police and intelligence service. Echoing Rumsfeld, that May U.S. President Barack Obama said the handover later that year would mark the end of “America’s combat mission” and promised us “an opportunity to seek a long-overdue and hard-earned peace.” Even when Rumsfeld and Obama’s words were delivered, they felt ill-judged, and now I have also come to think of them as a warning about our current situation. We are again approaching a point where history could come back to haunt us. Today, as we move toward May 2022, it is the Taliban who have declared an end to the conflict, and while I hope they are right, it is still too early to say if their optimism is well founded. Security has improved enormously since last August, but there is no guarantee that this fragile peace will hold, not with divisions inside the government widening and the Islamic State group waiting to exploit any more ruptures.
At around the time of the 2014 security handover, I traveled to Jalalabad, the biggest city in eastern Afghanistan, to report on the deteriorating situation there. Although I cannot recall the exact date of the trip, I know I wanted to get a better idea of what might lie in wait for us. Living in Kabul, I was used to the constant threat of suicide bombings, but the violence in Jalalabad was more complex and frightening than anything happening in the capital. Nationally and regionally, the insurgency had always harbored some criminal elements. These were kept in check to a certain extent, however, by the strategic and tactical aims of the Taliban. Extortion and drug trafficking were permissible, for example, as long as they did not destabilize the wider political and military goals of the insurgency. In Jalalabad the informal constraints that contained the violence had begun to crack. Just about everyone I spoke to in the city was scared of being kidnapped; it didn’t matter if it was day or night, or whether they were old or young, rich or poor. I remember driving through the city with a friend to meet some of my contacts in a rundown restaurant. When we got there we sat outside in the open air and I prepared to begin my interviews. Normally there are few places I would rather be than Jalalabad; it’s a beautiful city with a warm, humid climate and a relaxed, welcoming atmosphere. That day, however, everyone I approached in the restaurant talked in low, hushed tones. They advised me to stop asking questions and to make sure I didn’t venture into the outskirts of town. It was hard not to feel scared, but gradually I managed to calm their nerves, and my own, and get some background information from them.
The people in the restaurant told me that breakaway elements of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) were behind the kidnappings. They had crossed into Afghanistan and were roaming around Jalalabad and its surrounding districts, acting with impunity. I knew abductions were a well-established feature of the war because militant groups saw ransoms as a way of financing their struggle, but this felt different. According to my sources, the rogue fighters had split from the TTP leadership and were carrying out the kidnappings with the support of local warlords and the help of officials from the Afghan security forces. Residents felt unable to trust anyone. Soon after my visit the Afghan Taliban decided to put a stop to the problem in Jalalabad, viewing the kidnappings as un-Islamic but also wanting to win the respect of local people and crush rival militants before they had the chance to gain much strength. Clashes between the Afghan Taliban and the rogue TTP fighters broke out on the main highway leading to the Pakistan border. Outnumbered and outgunned, the TTP rebels melted back into the countryside, particularly into the mountains of Achin, a district to Jalalabad’s south. They took refuge in an area that had never been in the government’s control, even when Afghanistan was a monarchy back in the 1960s and early 1970s. There, safe from the Afghan Taliban and with NATO’s attention elsewhere, the TTP fighters licked their wounds and prepared to reorganize. Many of them switched allegiance to a new force that was just beginning to emerge in Afghanistan at the time: the Islamic State. At first I must admit that I was very cynical about what seemed to be a rebranding exercise by gangsters trying to give their criminality a veneer of political legitimacy. But I soon learned to take the issue far more seriously.
Next month New Lines will publish an in-depth investigation into the history of what is now known as ISK or ISKP, Islamic State Khorasan Province. The investigation is the culmination of several years of work I have been doing with my colleague, Chris Sands. Before then, however, I think it is worth reflecting in a more informal manner on the rise, fall and potential rebirth of the Islamic State in Afghanistan.
ISKP was formally established in early 2015, and much of the initial focus in the Afghan media was on its activities in the south of the country, in the provinces of Helmand and Zabul. But it quickly became apparent that eastern Afghanistan was the place to really keep an eye on. By 2016, ISKP was all over Achin, ruling it as the group’s de facto headquarters. The thieves and kidnappers who had roamed Jalalabad in the past were now professional, well-drilled, disciplined militants intent on creating a radical Islamic state. As their reputation grew, they started to be joined by volunteers from central and south Asia as well as a few recruits from the West with ancestral connections to the region. I remember talking to people who saw them carrying light and heavy weapons that looked in better condition than anything the average Afghan soldier used; they wore uniforms, had their own ISKP identity cards and ate well. One of my contacts even told me that ISKP bought some of its basic supplies from a supermarket chain in Kabul popular with foreigners because it sold branded goods available in the West and the Gulf.
Although I never went to Achin, I did speak to Afghans from the district. I was also in regular touch with ISKP fighters in other parts of Nangarhar, as well as Kunar and Kabul. They were generally poor, pious and humble, and used their words sparingly. That did not mean that the reports of ISKP’s atrocities were untrue; it simply meant that ordinary men can be easily persuaded to support and carry out horrific acts.
If ISKP was on the rise in 2015 and 2016, it seemed like it might be in a terminal state of decline by 2017 and 2018. One of the most senior ISKP members I met face to face was Shirullah Inqilab, the group’s governor for Kunar. As part of a research assignment I was conducting, we had lunch together in his area of operations in late 2017. The meal, served on small metal plates, reminded me of a local restaurant that used to exist in Chahar Asyab, just outside Kabul, during the 1992-96 civil war. All we ate were potatoes, beans and a few other vegetables. Inqilab’s clothes and shoes were worn out and dirty, in much the same condition as the clothes of refugees living in tents near my home in Kabul. When it was time to pray, some of Inqilab’s fighters began to talk to me about politics. It was clear they didn’t know much about the world and they were genuinely curious to learn more about famous Islamists. They asked me about Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. When I told them Zarqawi had been a violent criminal as a young man back in Jordan, reportedly even working as a pimp, they laughed and said that was just propaganda — a Jewish conspiracy.
In 2019 I was again in Kunar, this time to report on Taliban military operations against ISKP. I had heard that a lot of Taliban fighters from Wardak — my home province — had been sent to the area. But I didn’t give it too much thought until one evening when a young man standing on the roof of a house in a local village heard me talking in the dark and panicked. Armed with an AK-47 and thinking my Wardaki accent made me a Talib, he called out for help from a mutual acquaintance who managed to calm his nerves. Another senior ISKP figure I came to know quite well over the years was the head of the group’s prison system and later took charge of its “Dawah” (missionary work). He traveled undercover to Kabul and the north of Afghanistan regularly before the Taliban’s victory last summer. I can still remember his distinctive self-confidence and the hypnotic way he recited the Quran at prayer time.
Like a lot of Afghans, I have also witnessed the devastating effect of ISKP’s violence. On May 12, 2020, I was close to the scene as the group’s fighters attacked a maternity ward in a hospital in west Kabul, killing at least 24 people, including 16 mothers and two children ages 7 and 8. The bloodshed was horrific, yet elders in my neighborhood said they had been through worse during the civil war in the 1990s. Early on in the current Taliban reign, ISKP attacked another hospital — this time one for military personnel on the other side of town. The group has been relatively quiet since then, but as my investigation for New Lines will show, it is not finished. While we must be careful not to exaggerate the threat posed by ISKP, we must also recognize that it could yet ensure Afghanistan’s war is far from over.
A few weeks ago I was talking to a source in Kabul who told me about the driver of a Toyota Corolla who had sped from a Taliban checkpoint in a local neighborhood called Khuja Jam. The Taliban gave chase and eventually traced the car to the garage of a house. When the Talibs knocked on the gate of the house, an old man answered. They asked to speak to the driver, but the old man said he had no idea what they were talking about because there wasn’t even a car in the garage. He told them that it was now getting late and that they were violating the rules of the Taliban’s spiritual leader, who forbade house searches after dark except in urgent circumstances. The old man told them he would let them enter in the morning if they returned accompanied by the imam of the local mosque, who could act as a witness to their search. Rather than argue with a stubborn but apparently harmless elder, the Talibs left the scene and decided among themselves not to even bother returning the next day. Late that night, meanwhile, when the coast was clear, the old man left the house with his family and went into hiding. Between 8 and 8:30 the following morning, three bomb blasts ripped through his home. It turned out that he had boobytrapped the garage, the yard and the ground floor of his house with explosives and timed them to go off at 15-minute intervals when the worst of the rush hour traffic was over and he thought the Talibs were likely to return. Neighbors who knew him before his disappearance said they always considered him to be very pious; whenever they saw him he was either walking through the streets dressed in white or at the mosque. It may just be an anecdote of one minor incident in Kabul, but it is a useful reminder that ISKP has not given up the fight.