The Perfect Storm: ISIS, the Taliban, Uzbek Terrorists, al-Qaeda, Haqqani in Afghanistan
This Monday the travel ban expires for the five high-level Taliban detainees swapped for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, meaning the commanders who had been held at Guantanamo can leave Qatar at their leisure.
"We do remain in close contact with our partners to mitigate the threat that might be posed by former detainees," White House spokesman Eric Schultz told reporters aboard Air Force One today. "That’s a general rule that we operate by. But I can tell you that I don’t have specific conversations to read out to you in regards to the folks that you’re referencing, but I can tell you that it’s fair to say that we and our partners remain vigilant and in close contact."
It's also the advent of dangerous new alliances and loyalty decrees in Afghanistan that are bringing together terror groups to take advantage of the departure of U.S. forces and challenges faced by a fledgling democracy.
The administration that, two years ago, encouraged the establishment of a Taliban office in Doha as a base to begin political talks with the former brutal Sharia rulers of Afghanistan paid no heed publicly today to a vicious assault on a Kabul hotel intended to massacre the Australian citizens within.
Miraculously, no Afghan security forces or hotel guests were killed or wounded as four Taliban suicide bombers tried to get through the Heetal hotel's multiple security perimeters last night. They were able to breach the first gate, but in a six-hour firefight with hotel security and Afghan security forces all of the terrorists ended up dead.
President Ashraf Ghani said today that Afghanistan is "facing an enemy that spreads fear and terror among the people, but the courage of security forces has proven that the enemies of Afghanistan will fail to satisfy their ill intentions."
Ghani warned Congress in his March address before a joint session of lawmakers that “another, darker cloud... is making its way towards our country": ISIS.
“The promise of the Arab Spring gave way to the emergence of Daesh terror and collapse of states. But the changed ecology of terror could have not formed without some states tolerating, financing, providing sanctuary and using violent, nonstate actors as instruments of shortsighted policies,” he said. “…From the West, the Daesh is already sending advance guards to southern and western Afghanistan to push our vulnerabilities. To the south, Pakistan’s counterinsurgency operations in which more than 40,000 people have already died are pushing the Taliban from South Waziristan towards Afghanistan’s border regions.”
Afghanistan, he stressed, “is carrying forward everyone’s fight by containing this threat" but “properly supported, Afghanistan is uniquely positioned to block the spread of extremism."
The first step of support would be acknowledging the problem. Some say ISIS forces are already multiplying within the country, while U.S. officials say it's not a problem yet.
Mohammad Omer Safi, the governor of Kunduz province along the northern border with Tajikistan, said that Taliban in his region have pledged allegiance to ISIS to win the support of the caliphate. He told the Associated Press that they've already started evolving their tactics from the traditional Taliban "hit and run" attacks to seizing and holding territory.
Safi was appointed governor in December, and came to the office with a background in security and threat administration from the University of Leicester.
In addition to the Taliban and ISIS hooking up, he said, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has come over. The Uzbek group said in a September statement that they "are in the same ranks with the Islamic State in this continued war between Islam and (non-Muslims)."
Black ISIS flags are being raised in villages and casualties from firefights have included foreign fighters from places such as Turkey, Chechnya, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the Kunduz governor said.
But a western intelligence official, noted Afghanistan's Tolo News channel, said "the extent of any Daesh presence in northern Afghanistan remained unclear and had not yet been corroborated."
Afghanistan's Interior Minister Seddiq Seddiqi told reporters Tuesday that ISIS is, indeed, in the country -- but the government has a handle on it. Still, Seddiqi said locals are welcome to take up arms -- their own weapons, that is -- against the terrorists if they wish.
The minister said Taliban, al-Qaeda and Haqqani network fighters were plumping up the ISIS population.
Members of Afghanistan parliament have grown louder in their warnings about ISIS on home soil.
"The Daesh threat is concerning and government should have a serious plan... government has said that there is no Daesh in Afghanistan, but now Daesh have activities in here," said Daoud Kalakani, an MP from Kabul.
Gulalai Akbari, an MP from Badakhshan province, which reaches up into the northeast corner of the country bordering Tajikistan and Pakistan, said ISIS is conducting training sessions in the country "especially in placing of roadside mines."
Gen. John Campbell, the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, told reporters Sunday, “There’s recruiting going on in Afghanistan, there is recruiting going on in Pakistan. There is money being passed back and forth."
Campbell said ISIS wasn't operational yet, though, and the presence there includes terrorists who've rebranded themselves to be seen as a more formidable opponent. Some Taliban have become disillusioned with their leader, Mullah Omar, and "where they are going, they see this is as an opportunity to maybe gain more resources and so they've pledged allegiance to Daesh."
"It is absolutely a concern," the general said of ISIS in the country. "We don't want it to continue to grow, so the more we find out about it ... they can tamp this down before it gets to a level that you can see in Syria and Iraq. And again I think the fundamental difference here - Afghans have told me that this will not happen - there is a different ideology of war you see in Syria and Iraq. In fact Taliban and Daesh, there are reports of them fighting each other."
Though they share common goals the Taliban and ISIS need to learn how to get along, with dueling strains of Sunni Islam straining their relationship. The declaration of the caliphate in the Islamic State treads on the Taliban declaration of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
Taliban and ISIS have been getting in some epic fights over the past couple of months, including clashes that killed five (3 ISIS, 2 Taliban) in eastern Nangarhar province Tuesday, Afghanistan's Pajhwok News reported. The Taliban also arrested a former commander of theirs, Maulvi Abbas, who switched to ISIS.
Still, in the eyes of the White House, the pullout from Afghanistan signals success. On Monday, President Obama told an audience at Arlington National Cemetery that it was "the first Memorial Day in 14 years that the United States is not engaged in a major ground war."
"For many of us, this Memorial Day is especially meaningful; it is the first since our war in Afghanistan came to an end," Obama said.
And the White House also hasn't admitted that the Taliban are, indeed, terrorists.
“The Taliban is an armed insurgency. ISIL is a terrorist group. So we don’t make concessions to terrorist groups,” spokesman Eric Schultz said in January when asked why a trade with the Taliban was acceptable but a prisoner swap with ISIS would not be.
“Our policy is that we don’t pay ransom. We don’t give concessions to other — to terrorist organizations,” Schultz said. “The Taliban is an armed insurgency."