Afghan govt woos allies against IS
Afghan authorities are appealing to local elders in the remote eastern province of Nuristan to help prevent militants loyal to Islamic State from expanding into new territory. The initiative comes as fighters and their families, scattered in recent months by US and Afghan air strikes and special forces ground operations, seek new safe havens. The mountainous and thickly forested province bordering Pakistan is seen by Afghan authorities as a potential new base for the self-proclaimed offshoot of Islamic State, whose desire to stoke sectarian tensions was underlined this year in a series of high-profile attacks.
With Afghan armed forces and their NATO allies already struggling to cope with the Taliban insurgency across much of the country, the prospect of an expanding Islamic State group has alarmed authorities and the US military. The group, generally known as Daesh in Afghanistan, has so far been largely confined to the eastern province of Nangarhar to the south of Nuristan. There is has clashed with other militant movements including the Taleban, who reject it.
Afghan intelligence officials say an intense campaign of air strikes and raids by Afghan and US special forces in recent months also pushed many Islamic State fighters out of Nangarhar and into neighboring Kunar province, which borders Nuristan. To prevent them moving further north, security officials said they had provided weapons, ammunition and other support to villages in Nuristan, while also tapping the province’s particular culture to try to create a barrier against outsiders.
Hafez Abdul Qayum, the provincial governor, has held several meetings with local elders, who enjoy significant powers in a province where central government is weak. On one recent trip, after a two-hour car journey along mountainous dirt roads, he and his entourage walked the final few hundred metres to the meeting place out of respect for local tradition. There he sat down with elders young and old, many of them wearing round, woollen “pakul” hats and sporting beards dyed orange, to share a lengthy meal of seared goat meat and urge his hosts to oppose the new threat.
“Whether it is Taleban or Daesh, they both are the biggest misguided people and destroyers of our religious values,” Qayum, himself from Nuristan, told elders in Wama district, close to Pech Valley in Kunar where Islamic State fighters have settled. “Dear brothers, fighting against this menace is our biggest priority.”
‘Valley Of Death’
Such outreach is not unusual in a country where the word of traditional leaders often counts for more than directives from central government. And Nuristan, a province whose name means “the land of light” in Persian, has a history of repelling outsiders, including the Taleban and Al-Qaeda, by refusing them food and shelter and engaging in combat if necessary. But Afghanistan’s security forces see Islamic State as a fresh menace, because by targeting the minority Shiite community it risks making a dangerous insurgency led by the Taliban even harder to contain.
Last month, more than 30 people died in a suicide bombing claimed by Islamic State at a Shiite mosque in Kabul. Nuristan is seen as a natural buffer, with its singular culture, rugged mountain ranges and lack of paved roads or electricity. Known as “Kafiristan”, or “land of infidels”, before its people were converted to Islam in the 19th century, it has an economy partly based on barter and local languages and dialects unrelated to the main languages of Afghanistan, Pashto and Dari. That has made it difficult for the central government to exert control, and only a few thousand lightly armed police and one army unit are stationed there. The real power in Nuristan is widely considered to be the “Qaomi Shura”, or local elders’ council. “If they say to someone ‘die’, that person dies. This is the power of the council,” said a senior government official in the provincial capital Parun. If elders can be persuaded not to allow Islamic State to settle, security officials believe they will have a better chance of stopping its fighters from crossing from Pech Valley, where the Taleban and Al-Qaeda are also established.
Officials say Islamic State fighters from different countries have found sanctuary in a part of Kunar that includes an area known by US troops as “The Valley of Death”, where they have lost dozens of soldiers. AlQaeda’s presence was underlined in October, when a US airstrike killed Farouq al-Qatari, the movement’s top commander in the east. So far, Islamic State’s presence is contained, as it finds its place in an area hotly contested by other militant groups, and locals have been warned against giving help. — Reuters