THE PECH VALLEY, Afghanistan – A valley of lumber mills and green wheat fields, torn apart by violence during two decades of war in eastern Afghanistan, is now strangely quiet – the result of a turbulent ceasefire between the Taliban and the local Afghan government , forged by a mutual enemy.
The two sides worked virtually side by side to expel the Islamic State from the Pech Valley of Kunar province – a strip of mountains and earth that fought fiercely at the height of the American war. The Islamic State took office there before Afghan President Ashraf Ghani claimed he was ‘destroyed’ in late 2019.
The attacks by the Islamic State are now rare and come only at night, residents say, by fighters from areas outside the Taliban and government control. Although smaller and more amorphous after its military defeat, the terrorist group still poses a threat to the region as they recruit in cities and in the countryside, waiting to take advantage of everything that may follow in the next iteration of the war.
The coming months could mark a shift in the group’s prominence if the Taliban agrees to end the Afghan government on a national scale and fighters without the right to vote – who have spent much of their lives in a war – looking for a new group with whom they can ally in return. for a steady salary.
U.S. intelligence and military officials see the Islamic State in Afghanistan as a branch of an international terrorist group with global aspirations, and the tentative withdrawal date on May 1 of all U.S. forces could hamper their ability to monitor and hinder its activities.
“The Islamic State is just looking for a foothold,” said Wahid Talash, a resident whose home overlooks the Pech River. “The potential is always there.”
That was in 2015 when the terrorist group was officially established in eastern Afghanistan by former members of the Pakistani Taliban. The ideology of the group took hold in part because many towns, especially in Kunar, are inhabited by Salafi Muslims, the same branch of Sunni Islam as the Islamic State. A minority among the Taliban, who mostly attend Hanafi school, Salafi fighters were eager to join the new terrorist group.
In the ensuing years, military campaigns finally recaptured the territory occupied by the Islamic State. Sometimes enemies have worked together for years to drive the group out of the country: Afghan government forces transported Taliban fighters from one side of the valley to the other and US airstrikes against the Islamic State helped the Taliban fighters move below, according to ‘The most difficult place,”A recently published book about the region by Wesley Morgan, a journalist. Early last year, much of the Islamic State was wiped out.
What followed was an awkward peace between the local Afghan government and the Taliban, the result of an unofficial ceasefire in 2019 – set out in a recent report of the Afghan analyst network – which offers residents of the Pech a questionable return to normalcy.
Some Islamic State fighters who were not captured instead reached out to the government and laid down their arms. In return, they were promised a monthly allowance of about $ 100 and handed over a signed letter from the National Security Directorate, the intelligence agency of Afghanistan, saying that they had “joined the peace process”.
However, residents of the valley are concerned that the ongoing peace talks in Doha, Qatar between the government and the Taliban could increase the current balance.
“We believe that the Islamic State will be a major problem for the province and the country in the future, after the Taliban joined the peace process, as the Taliban who are not happy with it will join them,” Rasul said. Mohammad Khaksar, the chief said. of the youth degree in Watapur district, a stretch of houses along the Pech River. “This is how it has always been in Afghanistan, one insurgency group replacing another.”
Alternatively, if the peace talks fail, the Taliban could start fighting the Afghan security forces again.
The Afghan government controls the valley’s highway, which is littered with checkpoints and outposts that once belonged to the US military. In the hills out there is the Taliban. However, residents say both parties have a vested interest in policing their area, looking for outsiders trying to recruit for the Islamic State.
“People here get services from the government but pray for the Taliban,” he said. Talash said, pointing south, toward the mouth of the Korengal Valley, a symbol of the failures of the U.S. military in eastern Afghanistan, now controlled by the Taliban. But both parties “leave people they do not know within their territory.”
The policing effort worked largely for the time being, as did the reintegration of former members of the Islamic State into the local community. But the latter attempt shows signs of refraction.
The high poverty levels and the absence of government jobs and aid projects have pushed some residents, especially former rebel fighters, to support or join the Islamic State.
Three former members of the Islamic State said the support promised by the government never materialized after they submitted their weapons.
“The Kunar Valley is much safer and calmer compared to when we were part of an uprising, but our situation is not good,” said Sayid Khan Mumtaz, who has been fighting to some extent since the 2001 US invasion. fought to some extent. Mr. Mumtaz defected from the Taliban to the Islamic State after learning of Pakistan’s extraordinary influence on the latter group.
Tahir Walid, who along with Mr. Mumtaz fought, saying he would join the Islamic State or Lashkar-e Taiba, a militant group active in Kashmir that regularly works with the Taliban, before poverty.
Each group will “pay enough so that I can rebuild my house and recreate my life,” he said. Walid said.
In rural areas, the recruitment pool of Islamic State fighters has strong potential to grow if the Taliban make peace with the Afghan government.
But in Jalalabad and other cities, the Islamic State pulls poor and sometimes trained radicalized urbanites to fill their ranks. The group is known for paying higher salaries than the Taliban and the government, but since the loss of territory, the coffers – once filled by Kunar’s local timber trade, external funds, taxes and extortion – have shrunk.
In Jalalabad, a two-hour drive southwest of Kunar’s capital, Asadabad, there are dozens of Islamic State selections of three or four people working independently, so if one cell is arrested, members cannot disclose the presence of others. , according to an Afghan intelligence official. A similar network has long been operating in Kabul.
A United Nations report released in February estimates the size of the Islamic State in Afghanistan between 1,000 and 2,200 fighters.
“When I came here, I did not think the Islamic State would be a threat,” said Mohammad Ali, a Shiite Muslim from the Hazara ethnic group, who was on the outskirts of a plaster factory two months ago. of Jalalabad. . Mr. Ali covered his face with white dust and described the deaths of seven Hazara workers killed in a nearby factory earlier this month.
Local officials said the Islamic State was responsible. The targets of its attacks are often the Shiite minorities in Afghanistan, but since losing territory, the group has changed its tactics to reflect those of the Taliban: fewer large-scale bombings and smaller but targeted assaults. Sometimes, though, they are just as deadly. An investment in November at the University of Kabul left more than twenty dead.
Just a day before the factory workers were killed, three female media workers, all from the same television network, were shot dead in Jalalabad. The Islamic State has accepted responsibility.
Mr. Ali fled the city, as did dozens of other factory workers. Local government officials have closed several factories and the building where the seven Hazaras died has been virtually untouched since the attack.
The shoes of the dead employees were left behind. Bloodstains – despite a recent downpour – soaked in the tinted white rock.
Fahim Abed contribution made.