Fighters affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant are contained to one district in Afghanistan and the Taliban is fracturing into separate groups, the deputy chief of staff for communication for NATO's Resolute Support Mission said today.
Army Brig. Gen. Wilson A. Shoffner briefed the Pentagon press corps via teleconference from Kabul.
Shoffner said Afghan forces are keeping pressure on the Taliban and, thanks to new legal authority granted in January to conduct strikes against ISIL militants in Afghanistan, also on ISIL fighters in that country.
“[ISIL] is contained in Nangarhar province and the strikes we're [conducting] continue to have an effect,” Shoffner said, adding that the effect is a combination of strikes and pressure by Afghan forces and the Taliban.
The NATO coalition characterizes ISIL as operationally emergent, meaning they aren’t able to orchestrate operations in more than one part of the country at a time, Shoffner said.
“We're also not seeing what we consider command and control by [ISIL] elements in Iraq or Syria orchestrating operations here in Afghanistan. We’re not seeing a significant amount of external funding and that's one of the reasons [ISIL] has struggled here,” he explained.
When ISIL tries to generate revenue streams in Afghanistan, they often muscle in on Taliban activities, Shoffner said, “whether it's illegal checkpoints or the narco trade or trade in other illicit goods.”
Most ISIL activity is confined to Nangarhar province, the general said, although low-level attempts at propaganda and recruiting have been seen in more than 20 areas in Afghanistan, none of which have taken root.
ISIL in Afghanistan
Many ISIL-affiliated fighters are former Pakistani Taliban who shifted allegiance because of a push by Pakistan over several years against the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Shoffner said.
“If you asked me last summer to categorize [ISIL] in eastern Afghanistan, I would have said there were roughly six to seven provinces. If you asked me that question two months ago before the authorities changed, I would have told you it was four to five districts in Nangarhar province,” he said.
Now, the general said, ISIL is mainly contained in one district in Nangarhar province, one of 404 districts in the country.
“That doesn't mean that they're not a strategic threat to Afghanistan … [or] to the region. That doesn't mean we take them any less seriously,” Shoffner noted.
The ISIL-affiliated fighters are much more contained in Afghanistan than in Iraq or Syria, the general said, adding, “We want to keep it that way, that's why it's important to keep the pressure up on them.”
Spike in Fighting
But the main effort in Afghanistan is centered on the train, advise and assist mission and helping Afghan security institutions, Shoffner said.
Afghan forces have seen a spike in fighting in central Helmand over the past two weeks tied to the poppy harvest, he added.
“The poppy harvest … will start here in late March. Once the harvest gets underway we expect … a lull in activity. What we're seeing now is the Taliban positioning itself so they have control over the roadways, the networks [and] the ways and means they need to get the poppy crop to harvest. Over half of the Taliban's income comes from poppies,” the general said.
But over the past few months, infighting has produced new Taliban groups, Shoffner said, “and we see that manifest itself in Helmand as well.”
In northern Helmand the coalition has seen the emergence of three separate Taliban groups that don’t seem to be loyal to Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, “so it will be very interesting to see where the revenue goes amongst those three groups and where their loyalties lie,” the general said.
The splintering of the Taliban may provide opportunities for reconciliation with the Afghan government, or it could induce some of them to join ISIL, he added.
“We're seeing that more in the east than in Helmand although we did see some attempts of that in 2015,” Shoffner said. “[ISIL] did not have a fundamental ideological appeal to them, but it may have appeal with regard to being able to provide better funding, better weapons and better leadership.”