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Afghanistan: Hardening Frontline In Nangahar – Analysis

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By Giriraj Bhattacharjee*

On November 7, 2021, three persons were killed in two separate explosions in Police District-2 (PD-2) in Jalalabad city, the provincial capital of Nangarhar.

On November 3, 2021, two persons were killed in a roadside bombing targeting a Taliban patrol in the Sah Burhan Agha area of PD-8 of Jalalabad.

On November 1, 2021, unidentified gunmen shot dead three civilians in Jalalabad city, one of whom was civil society activist Hijratullah Khogyani.

On October 29, 2021, unidentified gunmen killed a man in PD-4 of Jalalabad City.

According to partial data collected by South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), since August 15, 2021 (the day the Taliban took over Kabul) Nangarhar Province has recorded at least 31 violent incidents leading to 51 fatalities [23 civilians, seven Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-KP) cadres, six Taliban and 16 Not Specified (NS)], till November 7, 2021.

No Province other than Kabul has recorded five or more violent incidents during this period. Kabul recorded 254 fatalities (206 civilians, 13 Security Force personnel, 16 militants, and 19NS) in these incidents. However, two provinces have recorded a larger number of fatalities than Nangarhar. These include Kabul (five incidents, 254 fatalities) and Kandahar (one incident, 65 fatalities).

Even in Nangarhar, the violence is more concentrated in Jalalabad. Of 31 violent incidents recorded in Nangarhar during this period, 28 have occurred in Jalalabad alone, resulting in 48 fatalities.

Moreover, violent incidents in Jalalabad are increasing. While there were no incidents that resulted in fatalities in August (after August 15), 10 incidents resulting in 14 fatalities were recorded in September. October saw 12 incidents, resulting in 23 fatalities. In November six incidents and 11 deaths have been registered.

While 14 of 31 incidents in Nangarhar have been claimed by IS-KP, it is widely believed that the remaining attacks were also carried out by IS-KP, which is making effort to take firm control over the province from where the group launched its ‘campaign’ in Afghanistan. IS-KP first raised its infamous’ black flag’ in the Achin District of Nangarhar in 2015. Since then, Nangahar, along with neighbouring Kunar, was IS-KP’s principal area of operation until April 2017, when combined assault by US and Afghan forces almost decimated the outfit’s operational capabilities in the region. The outfit suffered further losses in November 2019, when the Taliban, on one hand, and the Afghan National Defence Forces (ANDSF) with close Air support by the United States (US), on the other, launched attacks on the outfit’s remaining bases, depleting its capabilities further. However, IS-KP was reinvigorated in June 2020 under a new leader, Shahab al-Muhajir, and launched its onslaught with a renewed vigour to regain lost ground in Nangahar in particular, and Afghanistan at large.

The onslaught, expectedly, has intensified since the fall of the Afghan Government on August 15, 2021, as the IS-KP sees an opportunity against a weak Taliban administration in Kabul. Challenging the Taliban regime, the IS-KP seeks to strengthen its base in Nangarhar to take the fight deeper across Afghanistan.

Nangahar Province has an area of 7,727 square kilometres and shares international boundaries with the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province of Pakistan from three sides. In July 2021, under a directive from IS-Central, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province of Pakistan was added to IS-KP, removing it from the Islamic State-Pakistan Province (IS-PP). For the Taliban, as the now de-facto ruler of Afghanistan, it is critical to control the province, to ensure Afghanistan’s security and financial interests. The lucrative border trade through the Torkham land border port in the province is an extremely important source of revenue, next only to Herat Province in the west, which shares its border with Iran.

However, finding it difficult to fight the resurgent IS-KP on ground in its stronghold area, the Taliban is resorting to disinformation. On October 31, 2021, in an interview to BBC, Dr. Bashir, Taliban’s in-charge of Intelligence in Nangarhar, noted that “the name ‘Daesh’ refers to Syria and Iraq” and asserted “there is no miscreant group with the name of ‘Daesh’ here in Afghanistan.” Instead, he called the IS-KP militants as “a group of traitors who have rebelled against our Islamic government.”

Interestingly, on the same day, the Taliban announced the surrender of 65 IS-KP militants in Nangarhar. A statement issued by the provincial administration in Nangarhar read,

Through the mediation of tribal elders in Kot and Batkot districts of Nangarhar province, 65 Daesh militants surrendered to the Islamic Emirate (Taliban) through the intelligence department and expressed remorse for their past actions.

Moreover, Taliban is using strong-armed tactics which may in fact play to the strength of IS-KP by giving it more recruits. According to BBC,

more recruits. According to BBC, Every few days, bodies are dumped on the outskirts of the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad. Some have been shot or hanged, some beheaded. Many have handwritten notes stuffed into their pockets, accusing them of being members of Afghanistan’s branch of the Islamic State.

Further, the violence in Nangahar has taken a sectarian turn, with the Taliban targeting individuals linked to the Ahl-e-Hadis sub-sect of Sunni Islam. Most of the IS-KP cadres belong to this sub-sect, while the Taliban are Hanafis. Also, according to reports, the Ahl-e-Hadis are concentrated in Nangarhar, apart from neighbouring Provinces of Kunar, Badakhshan, and Nuristan. The Ahl-e-Hadis movement is a puritanical sect of Islam that stresses monotheism and rejects classical schools of Islamic jurisprudence, calling for a return to Islamic practices of Prophet Mohamad’s time. The indiscriminate targeting of the Ahl-e-Hadis is likely to push many towards IS-KP for security. A Sweden-based researcher on radical militant groups active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Abdul Sayed, thus observed, “All this will eventually benefit Daesh because it will attract more recruits to its cause and will win broader support.”

Meanwhile, according to an October 31, 2021, report, some personnel of the erstwhile National Directorate of Security (NDS) and Afghan Special Forces, due to fear of Taliban reprisals, have joined IS-KP. Rahmatullah Nabil, a former head of NDS, who left the country shortly before the Taliban takeover, claimed that “in some areas, ISIS [IS-KP] has become very attractive” to former members of Afghan security and defense forces “who have been left behind”. “If there were a resistance, they would have joined the resistance,” he added.

Further, according to a November 3, 2021, report, a former member of the Afghan Government, Faraidoon Momand, based in Jalalabad, claimed that the worsening economic situation in the country was also driving IS-KP recruitment. According to the World Bank’s Afghanistan-Country Context, last updated on October 8, 2021, recent developments have pushed Afghanistan into economic crisis. The rapid reduction in international grant support, loss of access to offshore assets, and disruption to financial linkages are expected to lead to a major contraction of the economy, increasing poverty, and macroeconomic instability. According to the UN’s World Food Programme, one in three Afghans are hungry today, and millions of Afghans will face starvation this winter unless urgent action is taken. More than half the population – about 22.8 million people – face acute food insecurity, while 3.2 million children under five could suffer acute malnutrition, 

These factors can only feed growing instability and violence and the Taliban-IS-KP face-off in Nangarhar Province can only escalate, even as it widens to afflict other provinces. A weak ‘government’ in Kabul is likely to find it difficult to face the emerging challenges in the frontline battle zone of Nangarhar, even as its own oppression, violence and incompetence drive people to desperation and to recruitment by whichever prove to be the most effective anti-Taliban forces.

*Giriraj Bhattacharjee
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management

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SATP

SATP, or the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) publishes the South Asia Intelligence Review, and is a product of The Institute for Conflict Management, a non-Profit Society set up in 1997 in New Delhi, and which is committed to the continuous evaluation and resolution of problems of internal security in South Asia. The Institute was set up on the initiative of, and is presently headed by, its President, Mr. K.P.S. Gill, IPS (Retd).

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