Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 20 September 2019

ISIS aims for Afghanistan expansion as US and Taliban work towards peace

Afghans are sceptical that a peace deal will curb violence as ISIS increases its campaign

ISIS claimed Saturday's attack which killed 63. AP
ISIS claimed Saturday's attack which killed 63. AP

ISIS has increased its violence in Afghanistan as the US and the Taliban this week neared a deal to end America’s longest war.

The country has been hit by a wave of bombings in recent days with ISIS killing 63 people and injuring almost 200 at a wedding reception on Saturday.

Two days later, as the country marked 100 years of independence, explosions hit restaurants and public places in the city of Jalalabad, leaving dozens wounded. The attack has not yet been claimed.

Experts believe ISIS’s latest offensive in Afghanistan is an attempt to derail peace talks between the US, the Taliban and the Afghan government.

“ISKP [IS Khorasan Province, the group’s branch in Afghanistan] is scared of a peace deal between the US and the Taliban, because they are getting hammered on the battlefield from two sides: by the pro-government forces and by the Taliban,” said Graeme Smith, a consultant for the International Crisis Group.

“ISKP does not want to see its two biggest enemies make peace and join forces against them.

"There’s a potential motive for them to conduct bigger spectacular attacks right now, on the eve of a historic settlement between the US and the Taliban.”

ISIS does not have a strong presence in Afghanistan. Officials estimate between 4,000 and 6,000 fighters could be in the country, a quarter of whom are probably foreign fighters.

An Afghan security official said up to 10 per cent of Taliban members could defect to ISIS after the US-Taliban deal, because the organisation has become increasingly fragmented.

At the same time, the extremists are trying to derail peace efforts.

The Taliban strongly condemned Saturday’s attack.

“There is no justification for such deliberate and brutal killings and targeting of women and children,” spokesman Zabiullah Mujaheed said.

Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan President who is running for re-election on September 28, did not absolve the Taliban of all blame for the ISIS wedding blast, saying the group provides “a platform for terrorists".

Mr Ghani has since called for an extraordinary security meeting to address violence in the capital, including the rise of ISIS.

The wedding hall was destroyed in Saturday's attack. Its manager, Haji Hussain, was at home when the explosion happened.

At the venue, where the clean-up operation was continuing, Mr Hussain said he was tired of the violence.

“Every Afghan wants peace but the government and the Taliban don’t want it,” he told The National. “Our entire lives have been full of fighting and terrorist attacks.”

But Afghans are sceptical that a US-Taliban deal would end violence in the country, with other groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda on the rise.

“The peace talks don’t mean much to me,” said independent activist Nargis Azaryun.

“It is clear that this is a game by Trump to win the hearts and minds of the American public for his election campaign.

“The Americans want an out and Trump is apparently giving them one. For Afghanistan, this wouldn’t be the end of the violence. Thousands of lives will be lost."

Mahmood Marhoon, a researcher at Kabul University, said a deal was necessary, but fears grow that Afghanistan will be forgotten by the world as ISIS grows in the country.

“We’ve already seen that whenever talks between the US and the Taliban are under way, ISIS tries to disrupt it," Mr Marhoon said. "They don’t want the talks to finish.

“With the coming of the Taliban and even their possible integration into the government, the war will not be finished."

Updated: August 21, 2019 01:45 AM

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