Bin Laden backers want to crush Islamic State in Afghanistan

By Eltaf Najafizada and Natalie Obiko Pearson | Bloomberg | Published: February 4, 2016

The Afghan militant group that sheltered Osama bin Laden before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks is closing the door to the Islamic State.

The Taliban is giving up on holding talks with the group and will prevent it from gaining a foothold in Afghanistan, spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed said by email. He accused the media and intelligence agencies of inflating the Islamic State's strength.

"We've used all reasonable chances and options for peace efforts, but apparently those people are not rational, and reconciliation and talks with them is not possible," Mujahed said. He called the group, known by the Arabic acronym Daesh, "a scruffy and uncouth production of nations in the Middle East" that "has no place in our community."

For the Taliban, the Islamic State is just another group in a long list of enemies that have tried and failed to uproot it from the Pashtun-speaking desertlike areas of southern Afghanistan. Just as Daesh fighters arrive, the United States and its allies are looking to exit after 15 years of war that have killed about 2,300 American soldiers and cost more than $700 billion.

In a response to emailed questions, Mujahed sought to portray the Taliban's strength as world powers look to restart peace talks. Besides ridiculing the Islamic State, Mujahed downplayed internal divisions, repeated calls for foreign forces to leave the country and said the group controlled 70 percent of Afghanistan.

In an interview in India on Wednesday, Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah — Afghanistan's second-most powerful policy maker — disputed the Taliban's territorial claims, calling them "exaggerated." He also said the government makes no difference between the Taliban and Islamic State, and will continue to fight any groups that don't join in peace talks.

"If there is any lesson from protracted wars, at one stage the sides will get together and talk rather than fight endlessly," Abdullah said in the city of Jaipur, where he was attending a security conference. A majority of Afghans want a durable peace, he said, and the best solution would be for the Taliban to "fight for their cause politically rather than militarily in a democratic environment."

Islamic State militants emerged over the past few years in conflict-hit areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan after some former Taliban members pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The group has captured some small areas in eastern Afghanistan, and U.S. commanders estimate it has as many as 3,000 fighters.

The Islamic State will only grow in Afghanistan if the Taliban loses its sanctuary in Pakistan and allies of the government in Kabul stop paying for its security, according to Barnett Rubin, a senior expert on Afghanistan and South Asia affairs and an Associate Director of Center of International Cooperation at New York University.

"In that case, the Afghan government and its foreign allies will mainly have themselves to blame," he said in an email. "At present, there is little space for ISIS to expand in Afghanistan."

When the Afghan Taliban took power in the 1990s, it received diplomatic backing from only two countries: Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The U.S. overthrew the regime in 2001 after demanding that the Taliban hand over al-Qaida's senior leaders following strikes on the World Trade Center and Pentagon that killed almost 3,000 people.

After 15 years of fighting, the U.S. now wants to get out. Doing so isn't easy: While Afghan forces are officially in charge of security, the U.S. is paying for about 75 percent of its military budget. Even with that cash, about a third of Afghan troops don't re-enlist each year. Peace talks, therefore, represent a sustainable solution.

Yet so far efforts to negotiate have gone nowhere. Nascent talks collapsed last year after Afghanistan's intelligence agency leaked news that reclusive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar died in 2013, triggering a power struggle among potential successors. The group's new leader, Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor, has faced regular attacks from rivals and was reportedly injured in a firefight in December.

At the same time, the Taliban has stepped up its military campaign as the U.S. has reduced troop levels. Flush with funds from illegal mining and opium smuggling, the group in September briefly captured Kunduz, the first time it has taken a provincial capital since 2001. Other gains forced President Barack Obama to revise his timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops.

U.S. Gen. John F. Campbell told a congressional committee on Tuesday that about 70 percent of inhabited parts of the country are under government control or influence. Even so, he called the performance of Afghan security forces "uneven" and said the country isn't stable enough for the U.S. to reduce its support.

"Afghanistan is at an inflection point," Campbell said. "If we do not make deliberate, measured adjustments, 2016 is at risk of being no better and possibly worse than 2015."

The U.S., China, Pakistan and Afghanistan will look for ways to bring the Taliban back to the negotiating table at their next meeting on Feb. 6 in Islamabad. The Taliban has several demands, including prisoner releases and the removal of key figures from a United Nations list of terrorists. Those have been rejected by the Afghan government.

"Preconditions are not acceptable," Abdullah said. "No country can achieve peace by violating the rights of its citizens. So that's a non-starter."

Pakistan is key to any agreement because it turns a blind eye to militant groups operating in its territory, Abdullah separately told reporters in New Delhi on Thursday. While the Taliban are "more divided than ever," its leaders "are based in Pakistan and so are some of the outfits," he said.

Pakistan similarly accuses Afghanistan of harboring militants that attack its soldiers, and has vowed to eliminate terrorist groups from its soil. The Congressional Research Service said in a December report that safe havens in Pakistan were one reason that the Taliban insurgency has persisted in keeping Afghanistan unstable.

One thing that both leaders in Kabul and the Taliban agree on is the need to fight the Islamic State. Abdullah rejected assertions from the Taliban — and Abdul Zahir Qadir, the deputy speaker of Afghanistan's parliament — that intelligence agencies are backing the group.

"If there is one lesson in dealing with these terrorist radical groups, they are against the interest of every state," Abdullah said. "It's only a matter of time before they turn against those countries which have turned a blind eye toward them."

For its part, the Taliban sees the U.S. as a much bigger threat than the Islamic State. It says the group is mostly comprised of "well-known robbers and kidnappers" who seek to scare people into achieving their goals, according to Taliban spokesman Mujahed.

"Daesh has really no connection with Afghanistan and does not belong to Afghanistan," he said. "If a strong central system and an Islamic administration is built up, the advances of Daesh and their recognition and embracement by our society is really not possible."


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