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US Military Calls ISIS in Afghanistan a Threat to the West

US Military Calls ISIS in Afghanistan a Threat to the West

Sunday, 4 August, 2019 - 07:45
American forces from NATO and Afghan commandos at a checkpoint during a patrol ISIS militants in eastern Afghanistan last year. CreditCreditWakil Kohsar/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Washington - Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Julian E. Barnes
Senior United States military and intelligence officials are sharply divided over how much of a threat ISIS in Afghanistan poses to the West, a critical point in the Trump administration’s debate over whether American troops stay or withdraw after nearly 18 years of war.

American military commanders in Afghanistan have described ISIS affiliate there as a growing problem that is capable of inspiring and directing attacks in Western countries, including the United States.

But intelligence officials in Washington disagree, arguing the group is mostly incapable of exporting terrorism worldwide. The officials believe that ISIS in Afghanistan, known as ISIS Khorasan, remains a regional problem and is more of a threat to the Taliban than to the West.

Differences between the American military and Washington’s intelligence community over Afghanistan are almost as enduring as the war itself. The Pentagon and spy agencies have long differed over the strength of the Taliban and the effectiveness of the military’s campaign in Afghanistan.

Whether to keep counterterrorism forces in Afghanistan is at the heart of the Trump administration’s internal debate over the future of the war.

Ten current and former American and European officials who are familiar with the military and intelligence assessments of the strength of the ISIS in Afghanistan provided details of the debate to The New York Times. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss the issue and confidential assessments of the terrorism threat.

A State Department envoy is leading negotiations for a peace deal that would give the Taliban political power in Afghanistan and withdraw international troops. For months, the Trump administration has been drafting plans to cut the 14,000 American forces who are currently there by half. On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Mr. Trump had ordered a reduction in the number of troops in Afghanistan before the 2020 presidential election, but he did not specify a number.

“That’s my directive from the president of the United States,” Mr. Pompeo told the Economic Club of Washington. “He’s been unambiguous: End the endless wars. Draw down. Reduce. It won’t just be us.”

Yet at the same time, current and former officials, including the retired Army generals Jack Keane and David H. Petraeus, are lobbying the Trump administration to maintain several thousand Special Operations forces in Afghanistan. Doing so, they argue, will keep terrorist groups from returning and help prevent the collapse of the Afghan government and its security forces.

“U.S. troops in Afghanistan have prevented another catastrophic attack on our homeland for 18 years,” General Keane said in an interview. “Expecting the Taliban to provide that guarantee in the future by withdrawing all U.S. troops makes no sense.”

In Afghanistan, the threat of the ISIS is not a point of debate.

Brig. Gen. Ahmad Aziz, the commander of an Afghan Special Police Unit, said that ISIS attacks in Kabul, the capital, are becoming more advanced and that the group is growing.

During a May tour of the communications ministry in Kabul, General Aziz pointed out a neat, circular hole cut at a weak point between two walls. A month earlier, he said, ISIS gunmen had slipped through the hole and into the building to kill at least seven people.

“Their breach points are evolving,” General Aziz said, “and they’re picking targets that are more difficult for us to get to.”

Military and intelligence officials do agree that the ISIS, unlike the Taliban or other terrorist groups in Afghanistan, has focused on so-called soft targets such as civilian centers in Kabul and the city of Jalalabad.

But on the key question — whether ISIS can reach beyond the borders of Afghanistan and strike the West — the American military in Afghanistan and intelligence agencies in Washington diverge.

One senior intelligence official said the ISIS-Afghanistan branch lacks the organizational sophistication of the core group in Syria and Iraq, which had a bureaucracy dedicated to planning attacks in Europe and cultivating operatives overseas.

Ambassador Nathan A. Sales, the State Department’s counterterror coordinator, called the ISIS Khorasan “a major problem in the region.” And, he added, it poses a threat to the United States.

“What we have to do is make sure that ISIS-Khorasan, which has committed a number of attacks in the region, is not able to engage in external operations,” Mr. Sales told reporters at the State Department on Thursday.

Some analysts said it was dangerous to suggest that ISIS in Afghanistan did not have the capability to threaten the West.

“I would never rule out any of these jihadis ever threatening the West, because their ideology is inherently anti-America,” said Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington.

But whether the American military should remain in Afghanistan, he said, should not hinge just on the threat from ISIS or other extremists. “The war has been stagnant and poorly managed for so long,” Mr. Joscelyn said, “that it is hard to argue for the status quo.”

ISIS in Afghanistan surfaced in 2015 and was quickly dismissed by Pentagon officials merely as a breakaway group from the Taliban in Pakistan, but one with little ability to expand given the pervasiveness of other hard-liners.

The New York Times

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