By Jeff Seldin, VOA
WASHINGTON – With U.S. and coalition combat troops all but gone from Afghanistan, Western officials are preparing to face down terrorist threats with the promise of “over-the-horizon” capabilities that may be ill-suited to the danger that groups such as al-Qaida and Islamic State currently pose.
U.S. officials, both publicly and privately, insist both terror groups are a shadow of their former selves. Al-Qaida, they say, commands maybe several hundred fighters across Afghanistan, while the Islamic State’s Afghan affiliate, IS-Khorasan, has slightly more.
And while IS-Khorasan has claimed responsibility for several high-profile attacks, especially in urban areas, intelligence and humanitarian officials say that both groups are unlikely to do anything that would make them an easy target for U.S. bombers or drones flying into Afghanistan from afar.
“Al-Qaida, probably for the foreseeable future, is probably going to tie its fortunes very closely with the Taliban,” one Western counterterrorism official told VOA.
“They’re going to want to reassure the Taliban that they’re not going to embarrass them,” the official added, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive intelligence matters. “They’re going to want to keep Afghanistan a place from which they can recruit, train.”
Islamic State’s reach
IS-Khorasan, which no longer holds territory in Afghanistan, as it once did, has also been laying the foundation for a revival.
“IS-Khorasan is not done and is an organization that still has the potential to gain in strength in spite of the recent difficulties that it’s faced,” the counterterrorism official said. “You can see certain circumstances in which IS-Khorasan could grow stronger, may attract additional fighters, and may gain additional freedom of action.”
Observers in the region warn that IS-Khorasan has also begun looking beyond Afghanistan itself and is attempting to gain footholds in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and parts of Tajikistan.
One humanitarian official in Central Asia, who asked that their name be withheld due to fears they could be targeted, told VOA that the focus was on “more quality and less numbers.”
“They are building local infrastructure for the recruitment, logistics, economic support, economic infrastructure to support that,” the official said. “At the moment, they have a need to recruit more IT-savvy guys, rather than just a regular soldier who’s ready to become a suicide bomber.”
Such concerns are being echoed by both U.S. and Central Asian officials.
A Pentagon report issued this past April called the expansion of IS-Khorasan “a top concern” for Afghanistan’s neighbors, adding that the terror group was “creating the potential for destabilization.”
U.S. intelligence likewise believes there is reason to worry, given that IS-Khorasan “has historically attracted some of its recruits from Central Asian countries,” according to one official who asked not to be identified in order to discuss intelligence matters.
Central Asian countries “are prioritizing regional security and stability by pursuing regional cooperation and improving their counterterrorism capabilities and border security,” the official added.
Uzbekistan’s ambassador to the United States, Javlon Vakhabov, confirmed to VOA that his country remains “very interested” in working with Washington to strengthen border security, with an eye toward stemming the spread of IS-Khorasan.
“We have always been concerned about such recruitments,” Vakhabov said. “They have devastative multiplicative influence not only to the recruited but also to his/her families and children.”
Other Central Asian officials also have been talking with the U.S. about securing their borders as the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan comes to an end, with the foreign ministers of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan engaging in meetings at the State Department and the Pentagon earlier this month.
“Afghanistan’s neighbors share our interest in a stable Afghanistan and countering terrorist threats,” a State Department official told VOA.
Yet getting an accurate understanding of those threats is only going to get more difficult now that U.S. forces in Afghanistan are mostly reduced to a presence in the capital of Kabul and a contingent at Kabul airport.
CIA Director Bill Burns warned lawmakers in April that withdrawing from Afghanistan would hamper his agency’s ability to collect intelligence. “That’s simply a fact,” he said at the time.
And already there are growing discrepancies when it comes to assessing the strength of terror groups such as IS-Khorasan.
U.S. officials have put the number of IS-Khorasan fighters at several hundred. But intelligence shared by United Nations member states suggests the tally may be much higher, with a core group of 1,500 to 2,200 fighters in Afghanistan’s Kunar and Nangarhar provinces.
“Their recruitment has also expanded well beyond their traditional original appeal in far eastern Afghanistan,” according to Andrew Watkins, a senior Afghanistan analyst with International Crisis Group.
“Cells of Islamic State affiliates now appear to operate within Kabul, Parwan and Baghlan provinces, and perhaps elsewhere in the country,” he said. “What was once a group rooted in cells of displaced Pakistani militants has taken root in a range of communities or individuals sympathetic to Salafism.”
Reports of Afghan security forces taking down large IS-Khorasan cells around Mazar-e-Sharif, in Balkh province, suggest the numbers could be higher still. And there are few estimates for IS-Khorasan numbers in neighboring countries.
Despite intelligence suggesting IS-Khorasan is rebounding from substantial losses — some inflicted at the hands of the Taliban — some counterterrorism officials are wary.
“While it would be risky to be complacent about IS-Khorasan, it’s not credible to be alarmist about them,” the Western counterterrorism official told VOA.
Some countries, however, appear to be sounding an alarm.
“It is important to shine the spotlight on Afghanistan, where IS members are actively concentrating their forces,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the Tass news agency last week. “IS is actively acquiring territories — mostly in Northern Afghanistan, right on the borders of countries that are our allies.”
Officials from various agencies and organizations who spoke to VOA are not convinced, with one arguing that such claims are likely just a “bluff.”
“The Russian Federation is seeking ways where they could put up the Russian Federation flag within Central Asia, in a strategic place, using narratives like ISIS-Khorasan creating a problem to Central Asia as a region,” the official said.
Taliban and terror groups
Ultimately, the fate of terror groups such as al-Qaida and IS-Khorasan may depend on how the Taliban, now in control of a growing number of districts across Afghanistan, choose to respond.
A recent report by the United Nations, based on member state intelligence, found that despite promises by Afghan Taliban leaders to sever ties with al-Qaida, the opposite appears to be true.
The Taliban and al-Qaida core “show no indications of breaking ties,” the report found, adding that the Taliban are playing host to possibly hundreds of members of al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) in Kandahar, Helmand and Nimruz provinces.
AQIS is such an integral part of the Taliban insurgency, the assessment found, that “it would be difficult, if not impossible, to separate it from its Taliban allies.”
Some intelligence agencies and counterterrorism officials have also argued that despite being natural enemies, the Taliban are at least for now finding ways to use IS-Khorasan to their advantage.
Specifically, they say there have been signs the Taliban have used the semi-autonomous Haqqani terrorist network, which itself commands up to 10,000 fighters, to help plan and direct IS-Khorasan attacks against Afghan government targets in Kabul.
Some counterterrorism officials believe such a relationship could prove useful to the Taliban in multiple ways. It would allow the Taliban to further weaken the Afghan government. Occasional crackdowns on IS-Khorasan would also allow the Taliban to claim they trying to make good on their agreement to not allow terrorist groups to use Afghanistan as a base for operations against the West.
For now, U.S officials insist whatever threat al-Qaida or IS-Khorasan pose outside of Afghanistan can be handled from afar.
“We are developing a counterterrorism ‘over-the-horizon’ capability that will allow us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on any direct threats to the United States in the region and act quickly and decisively if needed,” U.S. President Joe Biden said Thursday, defending his decision to pull U.S. forces from Afghanistan after nearly two decades of war.
“The goal was deter, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida, and that has been accomplished,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters later that same day.
“That doesn’t mean there aren’t still al-Qaida operatives or cells in Afghanistan,” Kirby added. “But they are nothing like the organization they were on 9/11, 20 years ago.”
The VOA Uzbek Service’s Navbahor Imamova contributed to this report.