Afghan militants deny support for Islamic State
KABUL, Afghanistan — Officials with one of the leading insurgent movements in Afghanistan are denying reports that it has decided to throw its support to the Islamic State group, which has sought to build a following in Central Asia.
Last week, a statement by a spokesman for Hezb-e-Islami, a group led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, indicated the well-known warlord and mujahedeen commander had decided to support the nascent Islamic State presence.
“The Taliban views the Hezb-e-Islami as their top enemy,” Hekmatyar said in the statement on the group’s website. “If there is fight between the Taliban of the Emirate and Islamic State, then support the Islamic State because the Taliban are the sworn enemies of the Hezb-e-Islami,” he said.
But Ghairat Baheer, head of political affairs for the militant wing of Hezb-e-Islami, told Stars and Stripes that such reports were false and “mere gossip.”
“Those reports were completely baseless and we deny them,” he said by phone. “We reject any such claims.”
After American-led operations that toppled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Baheer spent six years detained by U.S. forces after being arrested in Pakistan. In 2012, he was a lead negotiator for Hezb-e-Islami during talks with the United States, but came to declare that there was little chance of a settlement and warned of civil war.
Baheer, now based in Pakistan, refused to comment on whether his group would side with the Afghan government, the Taliban or other factions as peace talks slowly begin.
Hezb-e-Islami’s leader, Hekmatyar, was a famed commander during the war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s, and was among those who received aid from the CIA and Pakistani intelligence organizations. Hekmatyar and his forces fought during the bloody civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal, and he briefly served as prime minister in Afghanistan before the Taliban took power in 1996. He rejected the American intervention and has been designated a terrorist by the United States.
The Islamic State has begun to attract hard-line adherents in Afghanistan, according to Afghan and NATO coalition officials. Most of the new recruits are former members of the Taliban and other militant groups, the officials said. The move to distance Hezb-e-Islami from the new group comes after Afghan officials claimed that U.S. drone strikes killed several of the Islamic State group’s top leaders in eastern Afghanistan last week.
The rise of Islamic State-linked fighters in Afghanistan coincides with the drawdown of NATO-led foreign military forces, who formally declared an end to their combat mission last year. But counterterrorism missions continue, with foreign special forces operations and drone strikes like those that killed suspected Islamic State leaders.