Dispatch

It’s Not the Taliban — It’s the Islamic State

As U.S. troops prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan, President Ashraf Ghani has found a new reason for them to stay.

Afghan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani gestures while making a speech to a crowd in an assembly hall in Kabul on Februray 13, 2014. Ghani adressed a gathering of supporters ahead of the elections to succeed President Hamid Karzai, due on April 5, 2014. AFP PHOTO/Nicolas ASFOURI        (Photo credit should read NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images)
Afghan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani gestures while making a speech to a crowd in an assembly hall in Kabul on Februray 13, 2014. Ghani adressed a gathering of supporters ahead of the elections to succeed President Hamid Karzai, due on April 5, 2014. AFP PHOTO/Nicolas ASFOURI (Photo credit should read NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images)

KABUL — Earlier this year, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani persuaded U.S. President Barack Obama to slow the pace of a planned withdrawal of U.S. troops from his country by citing the need to prevent a resurgence of the Taliban.

But Ghani is now offering a new rationale for keeping American forces in Afghanistan, suggesting that the Islamic State — which has begun to make its presence felt with bombings mainly in the country’s east — poses a potential threat that must be confronted before it spreads.

In recent talks with U.S. military commanders, Ghani has referred to the Islamic State as an emerging danger. And he has tentatively outlined an idea that Afghanistan — with its battle-hardened security forces — could serve as a key long-term partner to stem the Islamic State in the region, American military officers told reporters Sunday.

By invoking the specter of the Islamic State jihadis, Ghani is providing both U.S. military commanders and Republican lawmakers who oppose the troop pullout with fresh political ammunition.

Opponents of the withdrawal have warned that leaving Afghanistan could produce a repeat of the disastrous experience in Iraq, where the U.S.-trained Iraqi Army suffered a humiliating rout at the hands of the Islamic State only a few years after American forces left the country.

Ghani floated the idea of his country serving as a bulwark against the jihadi group when he met with the U.S. military’s top officer, Gen. Martin Dempsey, who flew to Kabul on Sunday for talks.

“It’s [Ghani’s] view that, ‘Hey, look, I’m a willing partner in an area where you may not have willing partners,'” Dempsey told reporters traveling with him.

Ghani believes Afghanistan could support counterterrorism operations with the United States as part of “a South Asia hub, not just focused on Afghanistan but on the kind of threats that exist elsewhere in the region,” Dempsey said.

The concept was worth exploring, Dempsey said, as it recognized that the Islamic State presented a danger that transcended borders and could only be defeated through a “transregional” network of allies.

President Obama pledged in May last year to bring all 9,800 U.S. troops home from Afghanistan by the end of 2016, arguing that Afghan security forces will be ready to stand on their own after a 15-year American military presence.

Obama then agreed in March to slow the pace of the troop drawdown after American commanders and Ghani appealed to the White House for a more flexible timeline.

But Ghani’s latest tack could force the White House to revisit its public explanations for the planned troop exit, which have been focused on the state of Afghan forces and the nature of the threat posed by the Taliban.

Instead of trying to rally support for a war that has been largely forgotten in NATO countries, Ghani’s reference to the menace of the Islamic State plays on the growing fears of Western governments about the daunting challenge presented by the group.

Since his election last year, Ghani has been welcomed with open arms by the Obama administration after years of frustration with his mercurial predecessor, Hamid Karzai. The new president, a U.S.-educated economist who worked at the World Bank, is viewed by Washington as a key figure capable of steering Afghanistan toward a stable future.

The president’s decision to allow the U.S. contingent to remain at nearly 10,000 troops this year was meant to give Ghani some breathing room as he tackled a host of challenges — from widespread corruption to a dysfunction economy — after his inauguration in September.

White House officials have yet to cite the Islamic State’s nascent activity in Afghanistan as a reason to change course, saying that Obama still plans to pull out American forces before the end of his presidency, except for a small contingent of several hundred troops that would be attached to the U.S. embassy.

However, a senior Obama administration official told Foreign Policy that the United States is aware of the presence of “[Islamic State]-affiliated militants in Afghanistan, and we are monitoring closely to see whether their emergence will have a meaningful impact on the threat environment in the region.”

Ghani’s warnings about the Islamic State could open him up to accusations that he is hyping up the security risk merely to obtain an extension of the U.S. military mission. But the commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John Campbell, told reporters at a briefing Sunday that he takes the threat from the jihadis seriously.

Campbell, who advocated successfully along with Ghani for slowing down the tempo of the drawdown several months ago, is due to issue a recommendation to U.S. military leaders and the president about troop levels later this year.

Campbell said he would take Ghani’s views — and the threat posed by the Islamic State — into account as he draws up his assessment. And he raised the possibility that a proposed civilian-led NATO mission now under discussion could require a U.S. military contribution.

Ghani has discussed the security situation and the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan with Obama via video conference, Campbell said.

“He told the president he knows the promises [Obama] made to the American people, and he doesn’t want to violate that, but conditions here have changed,” Campbell said, recounting Ghani’s remarks.

Ghani envisages Afghanistan forging a cooperative military relationship with the United States based on combating regional terrorism threats, Campbell said.

U.S. officials are still struggling to obtain a clear picture of the Islamic State in Afghanistan, which is much smaller than the entrenched Taliban insurgency. While concerned about the group’s presence, officials are not yet ready to say the Islamic State has gained a major foothold.

Having seized large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria last year in brutal campaigns marked by atrocities, the Islamic State announced its presence in Afghanistan in January, and it remains unclear how much of a danger the group poses to the country.

Campbell, echoing the view of U.S. intelligence agencies, said most of the militants declaring allegiance to Islamic State are former Pakistani Taliban insurgents who have “rebranded” themselves after becoming disaffected with the Afghan Taliban.

The Pakistani Taliban’s shift in allegiance to the Islamic State comes just as Afghan Taliban leaders entered into a round of peace talks with Kabul this month for the first time. The peace overtures had angered Pakistani Taliban militants, who favor an aggressive campaign of violence against the Afghan government, according to U.S. military officers.

Suicide bombings and other attacks linked to the Islamic State have occurred mainly in the provinces of Nangarhar, Faryab, and Helmand, with fighting breaking out in some cases between the Afghan Taliban and Islamic State militants, Campbell said.

The Islamic State jihadis “are not an existential threat to Afghanistan at this point,” Campbell told reporters. “Could they become that down the road? I don’t know.”

The contingent of U.S. troops still in Afghanistan is primarily focused on advising the country’s security forces and providing logistical help as well as intelligence from surveillance aircraft. About 3,000 U.S. Special Forces and other troops continue to carry out counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda and — more recently — Islamic State militants. A U.S. drone strike took out the purported leader of the group in eastern Afghanistan earlier this month.

It remains an open question how the Afghan army and police will fare once American troops depart from the country.

On the battlefield, the Afghans — particularly police units — are suffering heavy losses. Casualties have soared 60 percent compared to last year, with 4,700 killed and 7,800 wounded so far this year, according to figures from the U.S. military.

The Afghan president has said the country’s security forces are holding their own against the Taliban. But starting with a visit to Washington in March, Ghani has voiced growing alarm over the Islamic State, blaming a number of deadly attacks on the group.

Ghani has warned that the jihadis are spreading their tentacles into the country and will only be defeated by a concerted international front.

Speaking to a crowd in April in the northeastern town of Faizabad, Ghani said: “If we don’t stand on the same line united, these people are going to destroy us.”

Photo credit: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images

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