Afghan govt woos al­lies against IS

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

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

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