ISIL prolongs US war of contradictions in Afghanistan

How did a non-native force such as ISIL make headway in Afghanistan within a year?

Afghan security officers escort two of six alleged members of the group calling themselves ISIL, arrested after clashes with Afghan security forces in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan [EPA]
Afghan security officers escort two alleged ISIL members in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan [EPA]

We will bury ISIL in Afghanistan. This was the stark warning from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, speaking to the BBC in Davos last weekend.

After welcoming the United States administration’s decision to give full authority to the US military to target ISIL affiliated groups in Afghanistan, Ghani says Daesh has “confronted the wrong people and they need to know the consequences”.

But are these the words of a defiant leader, or is Ghani now simply an embattled president desperately trying to justify a never-ending war, led by the US, in Afghanistan?

And after 15 years of an aimless and failed war against a mythical enemy, why should Afghans allow another US war to take place, this time with a new enemy, the so-called “Islamic State”, in Afghanistan?

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The extension of the current unfruitful “war on terror” taking place in Afghan homes and villages will only make the US a country on a perpetual war footing, but not one that attempts to defuse conflicts and in turn improves security, stabilising Afghanistan and indeed the region.

Rules of engagement

In May 2015, in an opinion piece for Al Jazeera, I wrote: “Never mind the assurances, the US is determined to prolong its war and its presence in Afghanistan, and ISIL is preparing the ground for it.”

Just last week, US President Barack Obama’s administration loosened its rules of engagement for US troops in Afghanistan and the new authorisation places ISIL in the “same category as Al-Qaeda” in the country. US forces can now “kill ISIL [militants] in Afghanistan just for wearing the T-shirt or waving their flag”.

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The change comes as the Pentagon earlier stated that “the existence of other extremist groups in Afghanistan, such as ISIL-Khorasan Province, which could develop an interest in attacking US persons, allies and interests, requires a US presence in the region that can continue to monitor and address threats, even as the US builds an Afghan capability to deter terrorist exploitation of Afghan territory.”

ISIL fighters at an undisclosed location in Kunar province, Afghanistan [EPA]
ISIL fighters at an undisclosed location in Kunar province, Afghanistan [EPA]

The report adds that ISIL in Afghanistan is fighting “for the establishment of a safe haven” and it has “successfully seized pockets of terrain” in the country.

But I quiz the US military leadership on the hows and whys of ISIL’s progress in Afghanistan. How has ISIL, a non-indigenous force, progressed in Afghanistan under the “close watch” of the US? Who are its militants and how and where do they get their support from?

How did ISIL make headway in Afghanistan?

Official US statements on the topic are riddled with contradictions. On February 12, 2015, speaking before the Senate Armed Services Committee, General John F Campbell, the top US commander in Afghanistan, stated: “We are keeping our eye on the potential emergence of the Islamic State.”

Nascent threat

How has ISIL, a non-indigenous force, progressed in Afghanistan under the 'close watch' of the US?


Later, he affirmed that ISIL remains one of his “priority intelligence requirements” and its threat is “nascent”. In June 2015, the Pentagon asserted that it “closely watches ISIL” in Afghanistan. In their messages, the US military sources were describing ISIL’s activities as “limited recruiting efforts” and its affiliates were named “rebranded” Taliban.

In the US, the leadership described ISIL as being in its “exploratory phase” and downplayed its presence in Afghanistan.

So it has come as a great surprise to many to see the Afghan president exploit fears of ISIL in the country, laying the groundwork for the extension of US military presence and ongoing operations.

On the national and international stages, Ghani called “Daesh [ISIL] terrorism version 6” and “windows 7.0”, comparing it to Al-Qaeda, as described by him, “Windows 1.0”.

In July 2015, he even went as far as proposing Afghanistan be used as a “regional hub” in the fight against ISIL by the US, after meeting with the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Kabul.

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Meanwhile, between July and December 2015, unimaginable atrocities were committed by cold-blooded terrorists coming from the FATA region (belonging to the Pakistan’s state-sponsored terrorist organisation Lashkar-e-Taiba) on the Afghans, mainly in the eastern part of the country, under the name and black flag of ISIL.

Non-indigenous force 


Afghans perceive ISIL as a non-indigenous force and the terrorist activities taking place under its name as part of a foreign intelligence design, spreading from neighbouring Pakistan into their country. Afghan parliamentarians continue to blame the US and the Afghan national unity government for not curbing ISIL activities in the country.

First deputy of the Lower House of the Parliament, Zahir Qadir accused Ghani’s government of “inaction” and “backing Daesh [ISIL]” in the eastern province of Nangarhar. Residents of the province and Afghan senators claimed that ISIL militants are being “dropped” by “unidentified helicopters” at night in their areas.

All this further increases suspicions about Washington’s objectives and motives in Afghanistan and, of course, for the region. In order to counter the growing threat of terrorism in Afghanistan, Russia, Iran and China now “seek unlikely alliance” with the Taliban as they see “interests objectively coincide”.

This begs the question, with the presence of some 9,800 US troops and several thousand NATO military personnel in Afghanistan, how did ISIL, a non-native force, make such headway in the country within a year? Is this a failure on the part of the US military and should they be held accountable for ISIL’s progress? Finally, why should Afghans now take more US bombs for it?

The US must embrace the protection of Afghan lives, and this should be central to its war policy in the country. Alongside Russia, China, India and Iran, Washington should commit to building cooperative diplomatic and political solutions to maintain security and peace.

Or else, perpetual US military operations within Afghanistan will not be a game changer in achieving security and defeating terrorism; rather they will form a policy of invasion, occupation and empire.

Aimal Faizi is an Afghan journalist and former spokesperson for former Afghan President Hamid Karzai from 2011-2014. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.