THE top American and NATO commander in Afghanistan has a colourful way of describing what is becoming a real problem.
“It’s like a balloon, we squeeze them in this area, and they’ll try to move out elsewhere,” says General John W Nicholson Jr.
He is of course talking about the presence of fighters from Islamic State who last week claimed responsibility for the bombing of a Shi’ite cultural centre in Kabul that killed 41 people and wounded more than 80 others.
The attack was the latest in at least two dozen bombings on Shi‘ite targets in Sunni-majority Afghanistan over the past two years in a brutal campaign by IS that has killed and wounded hundreds.
The IS attacks fly in the face of the reassuring message delivered by US Vice President Mike Pence, during a visit to Afghanistan just before Christmas when he claimed that victory in the country is “closer than ever before”.
“The road before you is promising, but it’s perilous. And this commander-in-chief is clear-eyed about the threats you face and the challenges that lie ahead,” Pence told troops at the US’s Bagram military base. “But today, let me assure you: President Trump has your back.”
Pence’s message though appears to have little resonance on the ground in Afghanistan, where far from being vanquished, IS is gaining ever greater military traction. It was back in 2014 that IS began to appear in what it calls Khorasan – Afghanistan, Pakistan, Central Asia, Iran and India.
In attacking Shi’ite targets like those in Kabul on Thursday, its aim is to stir up sectarian hatred in the hope of undermining an already vulnerable Afghan government.
The incremental growth of IS runs in tandem with the already well-established presence of the Taliban, which remains the dominant Islamist militant group operating in the country, and still controls large parts of Afghanistan.
All this is a dual strategic challenge for America’s top commander in Afghanistan General John W Nicholson Jr and the international troops under his command.
Nicholson, a 61-year-old combat veteran described by peers as a “thinker-warrior,” recently insisted that some 1400 operations and airstrikes had “removed from the battlefield” more than 1600 IS fighters since March.
It was back in April that the US claimed to have killed more than 90 IS fighters after dropping an 11-ton “mother of all bombs” on a complex of tunnels and bunkers used by IS militants in Nangarhar province in the east of the country.
Nicholson along with other military commanders justified the use of the GBU-43 Massive Ordnance Air Blast (Moab) bomb, one of the most powerful conventional weapons in existence, as part of a robust campaign to destroy the IS Afghanistan affiliate by the end of this year.
Its force, the commanders said, had been reduced to 700 fighters from 3,000, and its area of operation diminished to three districts from 11.
But as 2017 draws to a close, IS’s presence in Afghanistan appears to be strengthening not weakening.
Following Thursday’s attack in Kabul, Michael Kugelman, a well known specialist on Afghanistan and Pakistan and deputy director of the Asia Programme at the Wilson Centre, said that despite the “relentless” airstrikes, IS’s resilience in Afghanistan is now “quite worrying.”
Kugelman attributes this IS resilience in part to the Afghan terrain, which allows fighters to evade strikes. It is also, he says, a result of a “steady supply of recruits from disaffected” members of the Pakistani Taliban, as well as home-grown radicalisation.”
The analyst also highlighted the scale of the challenge facing US commanders like Nicholson. “Given that the chief US interest in South Asia is stability, the fact that you have rampant instability throughout much of Afghanistan and much of Pakistan as well suggests US interests are very much imperilled in a part of the world where, lest we forget, America has been fighting its longest-ever foreign war for the last 17 years,” Kugelman warned.
Others too have echoed his concerns, among them Russia’s special presidential envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, and the Iranian Intelligence Minister, Mahmoud Alavi.
Russia estimates there may now be as many as 10,000 IS fighters in Afghanistan and their ranks are being filled by fighters fleeing Syria and Iraq. Moscow is especially worried about the presence of these fighters in northern Afghan provinces bordering Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, and says that locals have also spotted Algerian and French fighters among IS ranks in the provinces of Jowzjan and Sar-e-Pol.
Earlier this month while addressing Tehran’s Seminar on Terrorism, Extremism and Regional Security in West Asia, Iranian Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi, reiterated Moscow’s observations on IS fighters coming from Syria and Iraq.
“IS has lost land, but has not surrendered its arms, and is looking for land in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia in order to, in this way, revive the idea of the Islamic caliphate,” Alavi explained.
Should Russian estimates of 10,000 IS fighters prove accurate then it marks a substantial increase on US initial estimates of 3,000 which it then claimed had been reduced to as few as 700 because of its counter-terrorism operations.
In its latest report published this month entitled ‘Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan’, the US Defence Department while still insisting that IS was ‘weakened’, acknowledged that the group “will most likely continue to plan and execute high profile attacks in populated areas.”
Last Thursday’s attack in Kabul is a case in point and again underscores IS’s deliberate strategy of stoking sectarian conflict. Since early 2016, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has documented a sharp increase in the number of attacks on Shi’ite civilians and places of worship.
The Taliban, which is more concerned with how its violence is perceived by the public, generally abstains from targeting mosques or other gatherings of Shi’ite Muslims.
As 2017 closes Washington will perhaps have to think again about what lies ahead in Afghanistan. US officials estimate the number of troops in the country could reach nearly 16,000 by early next year almost double the number stationed there when former President Barack Obama left office.
This coming year too in July, Afghanistan will see parliamentary elections and almost certainly violence will escalate dramatically between now and then.
With the Taliban already well ensconced in swathes of the country and IS seemingly digging in for a long war of attrition, Afghanistan and its long suffering people look set to be in for an even more difficult and bloody year ahead.