Somewhere in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan: Driving over the shingle of a washed out, nearly dry riverbed, the pale grey silhouettes of craggy mountains rose on the horizon marking the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was only a stone’s throw away from the busy main road, linking Jalalabad, the capital of the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar, with the Pakistani city of Peshawar, but the lack of a road and the few desolated stone and mud houses in the wide valley made it feel worlds away from modern civilization. The small stone hut on a hill among the yellowish grass added to the bleakness in this forsaken border region; so too did the cracks in the white plaster inside the hut’s single room. The only sound in the hut was the humming of an old ventilator powered by a car battery. Then the tall man with a beard, wearing a traditional Afghan garb and sitting on one of the thin mattresses on the ground, introduced himself as a lower ranking commander of the self-declared Islamic State in Afghanistan.
The calmness in his eyes and voice starkly contrasted his stories. His group of around 200 armed men is waging a bloody war in the remote, close-by district of Achin to reach their goal: the establishing of the Islamic State. But contrary to what one might expect, his ambitions are not to create a world-wide caliphate, nor are his archenemies the Afghan government or the Western forces that back it.
“Wherever there are Pakistani militias calling themselves ‘The Emirate,’ we fight them,” the commander said during our interview in mid-May. “The Emirate” is a term commonly used in Nangarhar to refer to the Taliban, who launched an insurgency to re-create their Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan that had been overthrown by the U.S.-led intervention in 2001. He had had no quarrels with the Taliban as long as they had been led by its founder and first emir, the late Mullah Omar, whose death in 2013 was kept secret until summer 2015. But this has changed.
In the view of the commander, the Pakistani government, first and foremost its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), has hijacked the Taliban after Mullah Omar’s death and he accuses them of sowing discord among Muslims. Therefore, as he wants to see Muslims united under one single power, he and his men have pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-declared caliph of the so-called Islamic State. These statements match similar accusations by some Taliban groups and the beginning of wider differences within the previously surprisingly unified insurgency after the revelation of Mullah Omar’s death. They also correspond to the start of more significant activities by fighters of the alleged Caliphate in Afghanistan in the second half of 2015, after earlier reports on the so-called Islamic State in the Province of Khorasan – an ancient name for a region encompassing Afghanistan, Pakistan and other neighboring areas – had been quite vague.
Besides targeting the Taliban, the commander also emphasized his group’s fight against drug smugglers, explaining that the self-proclaimed Islamic State fights everything that is against sharia, the Islamic law. Other sources with connections to the drug trade had earlier stated that ISIS has indeed clamped down on the opium and heroin production and trade in areas under its influence in Nangarhar.
On the other hand, he only mentioned the Afghan government after being asked about it and asserted that the Islamic State in Afghanistan had no plan to fight against the Afghan government. Although recounting that his group had a few times battled against the Afghan National Army and Police, he said that they had only defended themselves against government offensives. Confronted with allegations from Afghan officials that government forces had retaken the district of Achin, the reported main stronghold of ISIS in Afghanistan, back in February, he offered to bring anyone who believed this to Achin to show that the self-styled Islamic State reigns there, while bodies of killed Taliban fighters are rotting on the ground. Although the situation in Achin could not be independently verified, reports indeed indicate that initial progresses of the government offensive in February have been swiftly reversed by ISIS.
However, Borhan Osman, a researcher with the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network and an expert on the Islamic State in Afghanistan, qualified in May the allegedly defensive stance of the so-called Islamic State toward the government, as its fighters had at least a few times attacked government outposts in Achin and the neighboring district of Deh-i Bolo. And in the meantime, the self-declared Caliphate also launched a large offensive in another neighboring district, Kot, at the end of June, which reportedly involved 600 of its fighters and led to heavy clashes with government forces. While Afghan officials first claimed that Daesh, the Arabic acronym for ISIS, has suffered a defeat in Kot and is retreating, they admitted on July 13 that Daesh still controls around 30 percent of Kot. In any event, it is unclear if and to what extent the interviewed commander’s group from Achin was involved in this fighting and if by now he would revise his statements about the Afghan government.
Be that as it may, the commander did not even once mention Western forces as possible enemies – this is all the more interesting, as he acknowledged with a deep, grave voice that frequent U.S. drone strikes against his men are a severe problem. And such drone strikes seem to have increased in the last few months, with several strikes per week in the first half of July alone. In this regard, U.S. Army Brigadier General Charles Cleveland, deputy chief of staff for communications of the international coalition in Afghanistan, stated in a press briefing on July 25 that the United States will continue to target the so-called Islamic State in Afghanistan from the air. Cleveland added that, amongst other factors, due to such strikes the number of ISIS fighters is believed to be closer to the lower end of the U.S. estimate of 1,000 to 3,000 fighters. Nonetheless, the self-styled Caliphate is reportedly still present in a number of districts not only in its strongholds in Nangarhar, but also to an albeit far lower extent in the close-by provinces of Kunar and Nuristan. ISIS in Afghanistan appears far from defeated.
Based on his lack of mentioning Western forces and the Afghan government, the commander’s focus seemed to rest exclusively on his home region and their Taliban enemies there. He himself never expressed ambitions to expand the reach of his group beyond Achin, even saying that “if the Taliban are eliminated and the government does not cause us any troubles, we have no issues with the state.” However, later he added that he is a soldier of the Islamic State and will go to any land where his leaders order him to go. If he would actually do this, is, of course, another question, exemplifying what Osman described as mysteries surrounding Islamic State’s objectives in Afghanistan.
Even though al-Baghdadi resides in far away Syria, the commander asserted that – thanks to satellite telephones – they receive their orders directly from him. But it turned out that the commander himself had no specific knowledge of the alleged contact with ISIS leadership in its heartland in Syria and Iraq. This privilege is reserved to the overall commander of the region, a man called Qari Gulzar, as well as some other top commanders of Islamic State in Afghanistan, he said. While a source familiar with intelligence matters stated that the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghanistan’s intelligence service, deems Qari Gulzar the ISIS shadow governor for the province of Nangarhar, Osman could not definitively confirm this. Although Osman said that Gulzar – who is apparently only renowned in the Pekha region of the district of Achin, but not at all a common name outside of this area – is described as a commander affiliated with ISIS by some, other of Osman’s sources claimed that he is an independent anti-Taliban figure. The name of the interviewed commander was unknown to Osman, but a prominent tribal leader from the region confirmed that there is indeed a man with such a name operating for the Islamic State in Pekha.
These are only the first hints at the very local factors that seemingly drive ISIS in the district of Achin. Qualifying a common narrative, according to which the Caliphate’s disciples in Afghanistan are mainly disgruntled Afghan or Pakistani Taliban, the commander explained that he has been part of a group of ulama or religious scholars, but in this context apparently rather meaning a group that constituted some kind of an informal, local government that solved disputes between residents. In any event, he said that his group of ulama was neither with nor against the government or the Taliban and did not originally fight; they only took up arms against the Taliban when the group began to cause problems in their region. While the commander himself did not elaborate on the underlying reasons for the rift with the Taliban, an observer hailing from the region and requesting anonymity explained that fighting between local groups affiliated with the Taliban and Islamic State have more to do with local land conflicts, competition over lucrative smuggling routes, and other differences between the various sub-tribes and groups living in the area than with ideology.
Despite such local factors, the commander claimed that ISIS in his region has – besides a majority of Afghans – some foreign fighters within its ranks. In fact, he said that his group accepts everyone who pledges allegiance to the Islamic State, regardless of where he comes from, making his casual mention of Iranians and Chechens probably random and unreliable rather than significant. But he insisted that all their leaders are Afghans. During the interview in mid-May he also claimed that their numbers are growing by the day, without specifying if this is due to local or foreign fighters – if he would have to change this allegation due to the latest fighting and pressure could not be determined.
Furthermore, he asserted that his group is more than sufficiently funded with money from Islamic State’s mainland in the Middle East. He said that funds are transferred by their leadership there via so-called hawala – an informal money transfer system based on trust between brokers – and finally arrives in cash in this remote border region. This contrasts with an assessment by the U.S. Department of Defense, according to which “rather than relying on external funding, (Islamic State in Khorasan) is attempting to develop its funding streams within Afghanistan.”
Wherever the money comes from, the commander claimed that they use it to provide their fighters, who are on stand-by 24/7, and their families with housing, food, and everything else they need. In addition, normal foot soldiers receive a stipend of 500 Afghani (approximately US$7) for themselves and each of their family members per month, the commander stated – a far cry from the usually rumored $500 to $1,000 salary for ISIS fighters, but certainly more affordable, as the commander estimated the expenses per fighter as 10,000 to 20,000 Afghani (about $145 to $290) per month depending on the size of the family. Given that a guard in Kabul usually does not earn more than $200, the commander’s figures sound reasonable.
Moreover, the money is also used to resupply their armory. Weapons and ammunition are virtually all bought from the Tirah Bazaar – an infamous illegal weapons market located in and named after the Tirah valley in Pakistan’s Federal Administered Tribal Areas, just on the other side of the close-by border – the commander explained. As if mirroring the trail of the weapons, storm clouds having crept over the mountains from the Pakistani tribal areas darkened the sky and a peal of thunder interrupted the conversation for a second.
Although the commander then boasted that his group is better equipped than the government and only lacks aircraft, he mainly mentioned the usual suspects found in this corner of the world, Russian-made light and heavy machine guns — hardly special. His claims of multiple rocket launchers, on the other hand, sound unlikely. However, asked about anti-aircraft weapons, he very casually and without much interest remarked that his group not only possesses Soviet-made anti-aircraft guns, but also a number of U.S.-made Stinger missiles that have been left over from the fight against the Soviet invasion in the 1980s. Given that the United States, despite huge efforts, indeed did not manage to retrieve all the remaining Stinger missiles that they had once provided to Afghan fighters during the war against the Soviets, it is possible that the commander’s group could have Stingers. But in view of the long time passed since the 1980s, the probably poor storage and deteriorating components of the weapons, such missiles are unlikely to pose a significant threat, as a report of the U.S. Congressional Research Service also concludes. In any event, the commander said that their leaders had not cleared them for engaging airplanes or drones so far and that a report of a drone having been downed by ISIS in Nangarhar in April was not true.
On the front of more unconventional warfare, the commander stated that his group – contrary to the Taliban – does not use improvised explosive devices. These often mine-like devices accounted for 17 percent of all the civilian casualties in Afghanistan in the first half of 2016, according to a United Nations report. On the other hand, he acknowledged that his group conducts suicide attacks. But he alleged that they only target Taliban in such attacks and denied that the few suicide bombings that have been ascribed to ISIS were actully conducted by them.
Earlier statements that attributed certain suicide attacks to the Islamic State in Afghanistan had indeed been questionable. However, the claim that ISIS was responsible for the latest unprecedented suicide bombing targeting a peaceful demonstration in Kabul on July 23, killing over 80 people and wounding more than 200 others, has been more substantial. It was not only published by Amaq, a Middle Eastern news agency close to the Islamic State, but allegedly also confirmed by Afghan officials who, according to one media report, even named a resident from Achin by the name of Abu Ali as the planner behind the attack. In addition, pictures of the alleged suicide attackers appeared on social media sites linked to ISIS. However, at this stage it remains unclear if this attack means a turning point for suicide operations conducted by the Islamic State in Afghanistan or has rather been an exception (if the claim is indeed true, of course).
On a final note, the commander deemed a negotiated solution to the decades of fighting in Afghanistan the better way, as “war is difficult,” to use his words. Nevertheless he categorically rejected any talks with his nemeses, the Taliban and the Pakistani government. But in the end he explained that this is not for him to decide, as he is only a soldier of the Islamic State, following his orders.
Franz J. Marty is a freelance journalist based in Kabul, Afghanistan, writing mainly on security issues.