Terrorism

US vows to help counter 'potent' ISIS threat to Afghanistan

By Salaam Times and AFP

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National Directorate of Security forces escort militants following an operation in Nangarhar province in March. [Noorullah Shirzada/AFP]

KABUL -- The "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) remains a "potent" threat in Afghanistan and the United States will continue to support the Afghan government's counter-terrorism efforts, Washington's top diplomat to Kabul said Tuesday (May 18).

US Charge d'Affaires Ross Wilson chiefly blamed the Taliban for the rising violence across the country, accusing them of breaching agreements in peace talks even as US and NATO forces continue their withdrawal.

"ISIS remains a potent force here -- that is among many reasons why we continue to provide security and counter-terrorism assistance to the Afghan authorities," he told AFP in an interview at the embassy.

Wilson blamed ISIS for the May 8 bombing outside Sayed Al-Shuhada girls' school in Kabul that killed more than 50 people, mostly female students, and wounded more than 100. The school is in Dasht-e-Barchi, a west Kabul suburb populated mostly by Shia Hazaras that ISIS has repeatedly terrorised.

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Acting US Ambassador to Afghanistan Ross Wilson speaks during an interview with AFP at the US embassy in Kabul on May 18. [Wakil Kohsar/AFP]

Wilson also blamed ISIS for a blast inside a mosque in Shakardara district of Kabul province during congregation prayers on May 14. It killed 12 people, including the mosque's imam, and injured 15 others, according to Ferdows Faramarz, a spokesperson for the Kabul police.

No group has admitted responsibility for the school attack, but ISIS claimed the mosque bombing.

Long list of ISIS atrocities

Although Afghan forces largely squashed ISIS as a fighting force in Nangarhar province in 2019, the terrorist group remains capable of slaughtering civilians.

ISIS has committed numerous atrocities in Afghanistan for which it takes responsibility. Authorities have attributed still other terrorist acts to the group.

ISIS gunmen killed at least 22 Afghans at Kabul University last November. An ISIS suicide bomber killed at least 24 Afghans at the Kawsar-e-Danish education centre in the Dasht-e-Barchi neighbourhood last October.

Gunmen disguised as security forces killed at least 14 people -- including newborns, mothers and nurses -- at a Kabul hospital May 12, 2020. The Afghan government blamed the Taliban, while the US government accused ISIS. Neither group admitted responsibility.

In September 2018, an ISIS suicide bomber and a car bomb killed more than 20 Afghans at the Maiwand sports club in Dasht-e-Barchi.

Despite Taliban denials -- and ISIS claims of responsibility -- the Afghan government routinely blames the former for attacks on civilians.

Kabul has grown suspicious of the frequent coupling of a Taliban denial and an ISIS admission of responsibility. In February, the National Directorate of Security (NDS) announced the arrest of a terror cell comprised of members of the Taliban-linked Haqqani Network and of ISIS.

The recent arrests add to a growing body of evidence that ISIS and the Haqqani Network jointly plan and execute terror acts in Afghanistan, Afghan intelligence officials and political analysts said.

ISIS first emerged in Afghanistan in 2014 as NATO combat troops withdrew from the country and handed over responsibility to domestic security forces.

"The school bombing and the mosque bombing that took place a few days later pretty clearly appeared to be the work of the so-called 'Islamic State'," Wilson said, adding that "remnants of al-Qaeda" were also still operating in the country.

'Unjustifiable' violence

"That's not to give anybody a pass -- certainly not to give the Taliban a pass on the violence that they are directly involved in, or for the kind of ecosystem of terrorism and violence in which they are deeply, deeply, deeply complicit," he said.

With US and NATO forces on May 1 beginning a final withdrawal of troops to be completed by September 11, violence has soared -- with Taliban and Afghan government forces clashing repeatedly.

The Taliban have launched "substantial" offensives in recent months against government forces and civilians, "targeting them... in marketplaces and in a whole variety of cities and towns around the country", said Wilson.

"One can be clear and be honest about it," he said.

The violence was "unjustifiable" given the Taliban were involved in peace talks with Kabul -- even if they have been deadlocked for months, said Wilson.

"We have been deeply disappointed with the Taliban behaviour and the continuation of high and really unjustifiable levels of violence against Afghans," he said.

"There is no reason for this... especially if you are engaged in a political process."

'We are not going anywhere'

Washington still hopes for a peaceful outcome, said Wilson, who arrived in Kabul in January 2020.

"The thrust of what we are trying to do now is to bring about that political settlement that will lead to a ceasefire and a permanent end to the fighting here," he said.

Following the deal between the Taliban and Washington last year that paved the way for the US troop pullout, peace talks between Kabul and the insurgents began in September in Qatar.

But so far no deal has emerged, and the Taliban appear reluctant to attend a separate international conference in Turkey proposed by Washington to jump-start the faltering negotiations.

Even as the US withdrawal continues, Washington's involvement in Afghanistan will continue, said Wilson.

"Clearly, the country faces some tough issues over the course of the coming months and coming years... [but] we've been explicit about our commitment to continue security assistance," he said.

"We are not going anywhere. We are here."

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