July 3, 2018
The Islamic State terrorist group’s local affiliate in Afghanistan – IS-Khorasan – has grown stronger despite the U.S. and its allies dramatically increasing the tempo of airstrikes and loosening the rules of engagement. In fact, the terror group’s success makes U.S. President Donald Trump’s prediction of “victory” against ISIS in Afghanistan seem like pure unwarranted hubris.
Although Trump promised his flock he would eschew military adventurism, once in office he succumbed to the belief, as most U.S. presidents do, that wholesale withdrawal from Afghanistan amounted to an act of political suicide. Hence, needing a handy rationale for remaining quagmired in Afghanistan, Trump turned to what has become a near sacrosanct postulate: The United States must stay to prevent the next 9/11.
“A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists, including ISIS and al-Qaeda, would instantly fill, just as happened before September 11th,” Trump said in remarks on August 21, 2017. Trump also said the “clear definition” of victory in Afghanistan included “obliterating ISIS.”
The coalition’s success in Iraq forced ISIS fighters to flood countries like Libya and Afghanistan where their resilience has prevented the fulfillment of Trump’s prophecy. With that said, amid the oblivion, a rare phenomenon was caught on record recently: A U.S. government official told the truth.
“ISIS has grown stronger over the last couple of years, despite a really withering military campaign,” a State Department official told the Washington Examiner on June 30.
In May, the U.S. and its allies dropped a total of 591 manned and unmanned weapons on Afghan territory, the second highest monthly total since 2010, according to figures released by Resolute Support. In fact, the coalition is on pace to drop about 5,600 bombs in 2018 which would represent a 28 percent-spike from prior year and a 20 percent increase above the combined total of the years 2014, 2015, and 2016.
Not to mention, U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Lance Bunch said at a press briefing last week that the United States exclusively targeted ISIS during the recent ceasefire between the Taliban and government forces that nominally ran from June 12 until June 29.
Apparently this focusing of energy did nothing to slow ISIS which claimed responsibility for a suicide attack on July 1 that killed 19 Afghan Sikhs and Hindus who had arrived in Jalalabad, the capital city of Nangarhar province, for a meeting with President Ashraf Ghani.
Nangarhar, by the way, is the same province in which the United States has bragged of much success. A Wall Street Journal report dated June 21glorified a “pincer movement” by U.S. and Afghan commandos during a 3-week operation within the area that left 160 ISIS terrorists dead.
It is also worth mentioning that in April of last year the United States dropped its most powerful non-nuclear weapon upon a cave complex in – you guessed it – Nangarhar, which killed some 94 ISIS fighters. A few months later, the U.S. military said IS-Khorasan chief Abu Sayed was killed in an airstrike in neighboring Kunar province. A Pentagon spokesperson at the time said the move would “significantly disrupt the terror group’s plans to expand its presence in Afghanistan.”
Let us now transition to reality. In May, ITV News reported that IS-Khorasan’s presence in the region had burgeoned to a level of some 1,200 fighters – representing a 20 percent increase since the United States dropped its “mother of all bombs.”
Of course, the U.S. military has always been bad with ISIS headcount. In November, for example, U.S. Forces-Afghanistan commander General John Nicholson announced that the coalition had removed 1,600 ISIS fighters from the battlefield. This startling revelation immediately cast doubt on estimates released in March of 2017 when the Pentagon said there were no more than 700 such fighters inside the country.
Also undermining claims to progress has been the series of unending high-profile ISIS-claimed terrorist attacks. The group itself exploited the recent ceasefire, for example, to kill 26 people in a car bomb attack in mid-June (in Nangarhar province). They have also conducted at least a half dozen mass casualty terror attacks in and around Kabul in the past 3 months alone.
Some may wonder why a U.S.-led coalition defeated ISIS in Iraq but cannot do the same in Afghanistan. The real problem resides in trying to understand why someone would ask such a question in the first place. A better question might be: Why would anyone expect the United States to defeat ISIS in Afghanistan?
It does not require a forensic examination. Shall we start with the terrain or the safe havens or the illegitimacy of the local government? It is obviously much easier to bomb terrorists roaming across deserts than it is to target those hiding in Afghanistan’s mountainous nooks and crannies.
Although there is no doubt that Turkey and the Gulf States have provided material support to jihadists in both Iraq and Syria, nothing compares to the support and sanctuary afforded by Pakistan. Meanwhile, the Ghani government is once again under siege, this time getting bombarded by corruption allegations emanating from the administration’s former energy minister. The level of corruption and incompetence that has plagued the central government has made the Taliban and even ISIS seem like appealing alternatives.
With respect to targeting groups like ISIS in Afghanistan perhaps Nicholson put it best: “It’s like a balloon. We squeeze them in this area, and they’ll try to move out elsewhere.” And, unfortunately, almost a year after the unveiling of Trump’s South Asia strategy the United States is no closer to popping it.