Possible Islamic State penetration into Afghanistan is a “phenomenon that nobody can ignore,” Afghanistan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah said Thursday, underscoring the need for a more measured pace in the withdrawal of U.S. troops through the end of 2016.
Mr. Abdullah, a former foreign minister who is now the second in command in the unity government headed by President Ashraf Ghani, finished up a visit to Washington this week warning that the Syria- and Iraq-based Islamic State has “emerged as a new challenge” in the greater Middle East region and could soon threaten the future of Afghanistan.
Maintaining U.S. troops in Afghanistan throughout 2016 will help alleviate the stress associated with tackling the terrorism threats in his country, he said in a breakfast with reporters Thursday. After talks with Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah, President Obama said he had agreed to keep 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan until the end of the year to provide additional security.
The U.S. military is already adjusting its defenses in Afghanistan in preparation for potential attacks from the country’s newly acquired Islamic State supporters, said Lt. Col. Christopher Belcher, a spokesman for NATO’s International Security Force in Afghanistan.
“We believe this group is developing, relatively small, but maintains aspirations for the region,” Lt. Col. Belcher told The Washington Times. “While we don’t discuss specific force protection measures put in place, we are taking appropriate measures to protect coalition forces operating in Afghanistan training, advising, and assisting” Afghanistan’s security forces.
Islamic State rose to power over the span of several years and finally gained global attention in 2014 with the seizure of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, and key oil fields in Syria. The Iraqi government, Kurdish forces, a U.S.-led international alliance and Iranian-backed Shiite militias have all mobilized in a bid to reverse Islamic State’s recent gains.
Although the Islamic State has experienced many losses on the battlefield, the group has still been able to garner support from foreign fighters, who have attempted to recruit allies in countries such as Libya, Nigeria and Afghanistan. To date, the group has been able to found some backing in parts of Afghanistan, Mr. Abdullah said.
Afghan government leaders and U.S. government officials have been trying to keep tabs on the Islamic State’s efforts to find supporters inside Afghanistan. So far, that support group appears small, but it could blossom in time, said Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren.
“We are aware that some members of the Taliban have rebranded themselves and we’re monitoring it very closely to see if it has a meaningful impact on the ground,” he said. The presence includes disaffected Taliban fighters and little-known groups inside Afghanistan seeking the notoriety and support that comes with linking to the Islamic State.
Anthony Cordesman, chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former official in the Defense and State departments, said that the rebranding effort that some Afghan terror groups are making is aimed at grabbing headlines.
“One of the problems is, at this point, all you have to do is announce that you have an affiliation with the Islamic State and you can count on an immense of media coverage,” he said. “And it doesn’t matter how small you are.”
But regardless of how small the threat is, Afghanistan is ill equipped to deal with it, said Michael Kugelman, a Southeast Asia analyst at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Mr. Abdullah told reporters Thursday, “Two groups in Afghanistan have announced allegiance to them, changing the flag. It’s an issue that we cannot ignore because of the insecure environment will help them to find a footprint there.”
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