Almost 70% of the fighters of the Islamic State in Afghanistan are from the ranks of the Pakistani Taliban who have switched allegiance to the group led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a top US Army general has said.
The IS formed its “Wilayah Khorasan” – a branch encompassing Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of India – in January last year and numerous reports have suggested that members of several Pakistan-based jihadi groups have defected to it.
Gen John W Nicholson, the commander of the US forces in Afghanistan, estimated the current strength of the IS in Afghanistan at between 1,000 and 1,500.
“So 70%, roughly, of those fighters are from the TTP (Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan) and many of them are Pakistani Pashtun from the Orakzai Agency,” Nicholson said during a news briefing at the Pentagon last Thursday.
Many of the Pakistani Taliban fighters were “forced out of Pakistan by Pakistan military offensive operations”, he added.
Afghan officials have for long complained that fighters escaping from the Pakistan Army’s operation Zarb-e-Azb, a campaign against terrorists in the lawless tribal region, simply sneaked across the porous border into Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province. Nangarhar is one of the regions in Afghanistan where the IS has a sizeable presence.
“In the case of the IS fighters in southern Nangahar, we see that many of them come from the Orakzai Agency, which is south of Nangahar…And they were former members of the TTP, complete with their leadership, who wholesale joined Islamic State, pledged bayat (allegiance) to Islamic State and joined them earlier this year,” he said.
Nicholson said the IS’ original strength in Afghanistan was 3,000 but this had “been roughly cut in half”. Though the IS killed about 80 people in a suicide attack on a demonstration by Hazara Shias in Kabul last month, this didn’t mean the group is getting stronger, he added.
“The fact that they could conduct a high-profile attack should not be perceived as a sign of growing strength… Indeed, their area is shrinking,” he said.
The Wilayah Khorasan’s hold on territory has been reduced from 10 districts in southern Nangarhar province to parts of three or four districts, Nicholson said.
US forces in Afghanistan are currently involved in counter-terrorism operations and training and advising Afghan forces. “We have helped the Afghan security forces to reclaim significant portions of the territory that was previously controlled by (IS),” Nicholson said.
“We have killed many (of its) commanders and soldiers, destroyed key infrastructure capabilities, logistical nodes, and (IS) fighters are retreating south into the mountains of southern Nangahar.”
Nicholson said US forces “will continue to stay after (the IS) until they are defeated here in Afghanistan” because the fight against the group “is critical”.
“It’s nested within a larger global strategy against the Islamic State… (and) in fact, coincides with ongoing operations in Iraq and Syria,” he said. “By fighting groups like (IS) nand al-Qaeda here in Afghanistan, we deny them sanctuary and we inhibit their ability to conduct transnational attacks from here.”