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American Resistance To Empire

Afghan Taliban Keep ISIS Penned-Up In The Wilderness of Nangarhar

Editor’s Note: Radical Islam is not a monolith. The Lebanese Hizballah fights the Islamic State in Syria, Hamas has crushed al-Qaeda sympathizers in Gaza, andmost importantly from a U.S. perspective—al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are bitter rivals. This tension shows up in Afghanistan, one of the most important U.S. theaters of war. Seth Jones of the RAND Corporation details how a surprising source contains the Islamic State therethe Taliban.

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Since 2014, the Islamic State has established a small presence in Afghanistan. Islamic State leaders call this province, or wilayat, “Khorasan,” a reference to the historical region that encompassed parts of Iran, Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Yet despite their effort to expand power and influence in the region, the Islamic State-Khorasan Province, as Islamic State leaders refer to the affiliate, controls virtually no territory except for tiny areas in such districts as Deh Bala, Achin, and Naziyan in the eastern province of Nangarhar. The Islamic State has conducted only a handful of attacks in the region, failed to secure the support of most locals, and struggled with poor leadership.

The Afghan Taliban has emerged as one of the Islamic State’s fiercest enemies, though the U.S. and Afghan governments have conducted strikes as well. Taliban commanders have orchestrated an aggressive campaign against the Islamic State to kill its senior leaders, co-opt its members, and undermine its ideology. This development is a double-edged sword for the United States, with broader implications in the campaign to unseat the Islamic State from territorial control in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. The weakening of the Islamic State is a positive step. But Taliban successes against Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s organization have increased the Taliban’s strength in eastern and southern Afghanistan, creating a separate challenge for the United States and its allies.

 

The Rise of the Islamic State in Khorasan

In 2014, Islamic State leaders communicated with militant groups in South Asia to gauge the possibility of expanding the Islamic State’s influence in the region. The Islamic State began conducting an information campaign through word of mouth, printed material, and other forums. Islamic State sympathizers, for example, distributed a 12-page printed booklet titled “Fateh” (or “victory” in Pashto) in Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. As Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan spokesman Shahid Shahidullah remarked in late 2014: “Oh our brothers, we are proud of you in your victories. We are with you in your happiness and your sorrow … All Muslims in the world have great expectations of you. We are with you, we will provide you with mujahedeen and with every possible support.”

South Asia seemed a promising market for the Islamic State. The region has a long history of supporting jihadist groups, dating back to the anti-Soviet wars in the 1980s. South Asia also had several factors that made it attractive for Islamic State leaders: relatively weak governments, which provided an opportunity to secure safe havens in areas with little or no official interference; ongoing wars backed by Western countries like the United States, which could be used to delegitimize the governments in Kabul and Islamabad as foreign puppets; and a religious and historical importance as part of Khorasan. The Islamic State launched a blistering public attack against al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban, accusing them of having gross shortcomings regarding the teaching of tawhid (the oneness of God) to their members. The Islamic State accused both the Taliban and al-Qaeda of multiple offenses: focusing on tribal law over Sharia, establishing a close alliance with Pakistan’s intelligence agency, failing to effectively conquer and control territory, neglecting to target Shi’a, adopting “un-Islamic” practices such as wearing amulets, establishing a hierarchical structure that excluded many rank-and-file fighters, and recognizing international borders (instead of supporting a pan-Islamic caliphate).

One of the few groups that escaped the Islamic State’s excoriation was the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, which was formed in December 2007 as an umbrella organization among various Pakistani militant groups. “They were upon great good,” concluded one article in Dabiq, the Islamic State’s online magazine, referring to the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. “They carry the Salafi creed and hope and strive to establish the laws of Islam in their region.”

 

The Islamic State’s Strategy

In January 2015, the Islamic State formally announced the establishment of what it called “Wilayat Khorasan,” or Khorasan Province, in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Over the next several months, the Islamic State focused on co-opting local militants and expanding its networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Its strategy included several components.

First, the Islamic State attempted to exploit local grievances in leveraging already-established networks. Following the death of several Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan leaders, Hafiz Saeed Khan and several of his colleagues in Pakistan became increasingly disenchanted with the group. Saeed had apparently been one of the main contenders for the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan’s top spot, but was passed over. In southern Afghanistan, Abdul Rauf Khadim was a longstanding Taliban military leader who rose to prominence after the United States released him from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 2007. Yet he became increasingly disgruntled with the Afghan Taliban. The Islamic State recruited some of these frustrated former Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and Afghan Taliban members, as well as operatives from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

Second, the Islamic State headquarters in Syria and Iraq doled out some money to attract supporters. The Islamic State was willing to provide some finances—perhaps as much as several hundred thousand dollars—to build networks in South Asia. The Islamic State’s seizure of territory in Iraq and Syria attracted some extremists in the region, who wanted to ally with what they viewed as a successful violent jihadist group.

Third, the Islamic State took advantage of weak local governance to establish a foothold. Nangarhar Province in Afghanistan is perhaps the clearest example. Both the Afghan government and Taliban had failed to control territory in parts of Nangarhar. The Afghan government and its security forces had virtually no presence in most parts of districts along the Spin Ghar mountain range south and east of Jalalabad. And the Taliban had little control in an area that included multiple insurgent groups and fractured tribal dynamics. In such districts as Achin, Deh Bala, and Naziyan, the Shinwari tribal structure has almost completely broken down.

Based on this strategy, the Islamic State established an organizational structure led by an emir, with a deputy emir and a central shura composed of such committees as intelligence, finance, propaganda, and education. After the death of Hafiz Saeed Khan in 2016 by a U.S. drone strike, the Islamic State appointed Abdul Hasib, a former Afghan Taliban member, as emir of the organization.

 

The Decline of the Islamic State

Despite its best efforts, however, the Islamic State controls little territory in South Asia, conducted only a handful of attacks, failed to secure the support of most locals, and struggled with poor leadership.

In 2015, the now-deceased Taliban leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansour bluntly warned in a message to Islamic State fighters that the war in Afghanistan should come “under one banner” and one leadership—that of the Taliban.

One of the Islamic State’s fiercest opponents has been the Taliban. In 2015, the now-deceased Taliban leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansour bluntly warned in a message to Islamic State fighters that the war in Afghanistan should come “under one banner” and one leadership—that of the Taliban. Taliban leaders strongly objected to the Islamic State’s desire to establish a separate chain of command in Afghanistan with a separate leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In response to Mansour’s letter, Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani (now deceased) responded by accusing the Taliban of allying with Pakistani intelligence. This war of words soon gave way to bloody skirmishes.

In eastern Afghanistan, fighting erupted between the Taliban and Islamic State in early 2015. The first clashes took place in Naziyan district of Nangarhar Province, and were followed by Taliban attacks against Islamic State positions in Kot and the Mamand Valley. In May 2015, the Afghan Taliban withdrew after failing to secure support among locals, and Islamic State forces conducted offensive operations against the Taliban in several districts of Nangarhar. By mid-summer of 2015, the Islamic State controlled territory in several districts in the province. But the Taliban regrouped. Drawing on fighters in nearby provinces, the Taliban successfully pushed Islamic State fighters out of most districts in Nangarhar, except for Deh Bala, Achin, and Naziyan. In southern Afghanistan, the Taliban routed Islamic State fighters. In the northern Helmand district of Kajaki, for example, Taliban fighters captured or killed several dozen fighters that had allied with the Islamic State in 2015. The Taliban did the same in Farah Province, where they killed, captured, or co-opted an Islamic State cell in the Khak-e-Safid district. The Taliban also brutally crushed Islamic State cells in Logar and Zabul provinces.

 

Broader Lessons

Today, the Islamic State has roughly 1,000 to 2,000 fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a decrease from 2015 estimates. The group has conducted only a handful of attacks in the region, such as against a police convoy in Quetta in August 2016, Pakistan attorneys at a hospital in Quetta in August 2016, Hazara protesters in Kabul in July 2016, and the Pakistan consulate in Jalalabad in January 2016. But the Islamic State’s loss of territory in such provinces as Helmand, Farah, Zabul, and Logar is not entirely a good news story. The Afghan Taliban has benefited from the Islamic State’s decline. The Taliban has strengthened its power, bolstered its reputation, and complicated U.S. and Afghan government efforts to wind down the Afghan war.

The Afghan experience highlights a broader lesson in the fight against the Islamic State. The Islamic State’s loss of territory will not occur in a vacuum. Who will benefit? Other terrorist groups or non-state actors? The local government? Regional powers? As the United States and its allies undermine Islamic State territorial control in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and other countries, policymakers need to shift their attention to understanding and influencing who fills the vacuum. As in Afghanistan, the United States may not be much better off with the winners.

Will Obama’s Total Failure In Syria Be Revealed In The Coming Fiasco At Al-Bab?

Turkey’s push for Syrian town complicates anti-IS fight

  • FILE - In this Sunday, Oct. 16, 2016 file image made from video posted online by Qasioun News Agency, Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces patrol in Dabiq, Syria. Turkey is pushing ahead with plans to liberate the town of al-Bab, the last major Islamic State stronghold in northern Syria despite a complicated terrain. (Qasioun News Agency via AP, File)

    FILE – In this Sunday, Oct. 16, 2016 file image made from video posted online by Qasioun News Agency, Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces patrol in Dabiq, Syria. Turkey is pushing ahead with plans to liberate the town of al-Bab, the last major Islamic State stronghold in northern Syria despite a complicated terrain. (Qasioun News Agency via AP, File)  (The Associated Press)

 

Turkey is pushing to capture the town of al-Bab, the last major Islamic State group stronghold in northern Syria. But are others welcoming the new advance in the war against the militants? Not quite.

By seizing the city, Turkey would plant its firmest foothold yet in Syria. That is already causing frictions with other players in the country’s war.

Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government opposes the Turkish incursion. His military’s air defenses have threatened Turkish warplanes, and on Thursday, three Turkish troops were killed outside al-Bab in what the Turkish military said was a Syrian airstrike.

At the same time, Turkey’s Syrian allies are clashing with Syrian Kurdish fighters, who are another ally of the United States in the war on IS and are currently leading an assault on the Islamic State group’s de facto capital Raqqa.

Here is a look at why al-Bab is important for Ankara and how it can influence the balance of power in Syria.

WHY AL-BAB?

For Turkey, capturing al-Bab is key to preventing Syrian Kurds from connecting the stretches of territory they have captured along the border. A contiguous Kurdish-held area in Syria emboldens Turkey’s own Kurdish rebels. Ankara views the Kurdish forces on both sides of the border as linked and labels them terrorists.

A victory would push IS further from Turkey’s border and further squeeze the militants in the city of Raqqa.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey was forced to descend to al-Bab, 30 kilometers (19 miles) south of the Syria-Turkey border, “to prepare a region there that is free of terror.” Home to at least 2.7 million Syrian refugees, Turkey is looking to establish a “safe-zone” inside Syria.

But Turkey’s priority is the Kurds.

Erdogan has also vowed to take the nearby town of Manbij, which the Kurds captured from IS this summer after 10 weeks of grueling battles. That victory allowed the Kurdish forces to expand west of the Euphrates River — a line Ankara said they must not cross.

Al-Bab, Arabic for ‘the door’, would provide Turkey with a new leverage with its NATO ally, the United States, and strengthen Ankara’s influence over Syrian rebels at a time when a new Trump administration in Washington could halt support.

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THE BATTLEFIELD

Al-Bab is sandwiched between three rival forces. Moving from the north and west, Turkish-backed fighters are less than one kilometer (half a mile) away. Kurds are moving in from the east. Syrian troops are stationed to the south.

The Islamic State group is ready, erecting a wall around the entire town and its countryside to the south, according to satellite imagery by U.S.-based firm TerraServer shared by intelligence analyst Roa Komar. He said fighting could be as heavy as the battle for Manbij.

Some 1,500-3,000 Syrian fighters backed by 300-600 Turkish troops are involved in the three-month-old Turkish incursion into northern Syria, known as Operation Euphrates Shield, according to a Western military official speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. So far they have captured some 1,800 square kilometers (7,000 square miles), largely sparsely populated rural areas cleared by Turkish artillery and warplanes.

Turkey’s Syrian allies comprise diverse factions often plagued by infighting, including the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham and the U.S.-backed al-Mutassem Brigade. Turkey’s ground presence provides the factions with some protection from Russian or Syrian airstrikes, which have pounded rebels elsewhere, said al-Mutassem’s chief, Mustafa Sejari, on his Twitter account.

At the same time, the Kurds vow to take al-Bab as well, though they are more likely to prove a distraction for Turkey’s assault. Kurdish fighters and the Turkish-backed forces are already battling over control of an IS-held village between al-Bab and Manbij.

Meanwhile, Turkey is aggressively recruiting among rebels. One opposition faction recently evacuated from Damascus suburb of Darayya to rebel-held northern Idlib is mulling whether to join Turkey’s operation.

After surviving a four-year government siege, Abu Jamal, leader of Islam Martyrs Brigades, said his estimated 700 fighters are joining other battles in northern Syria to gain new experience. “We have never fought Daesh before,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for IS.

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HOW DOES THE U.S. FEEL ABOUT IT?

Nowhere is the U.S.’s often muddled Syria policy more tested than in al-Bab.

The U.S. has mainly been trying, with little success, to prevent fighting between its two allies, Turkey and the Kurds. After U.S. Chief of Staff Gen. Roger Dunford visited Ankara in early November, an American military liaison was sent to Turkey for closer coordination on anti-IS operations.

Part of that coordination could be over the offensive against Raqqa, said Noah Bonsay, of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

The offensive has been led by the Kurds, but Washington recognizes the need for a more local Sunni Arab force to eventually capture and control the city with its majority Arab population, Bonsay said. Ankara, which also said it wants to take part in the Raqqa operation, is in a position to help in that.

But while focusing on fighting IS, Washington has struggled in playing the bigger power game with Russia, Turkey and other players in Syria.

Turkey has grown closer to Russia even as it consolidates the opposition, including ultraconservatives, under its leadership.

“The U.S. is going to wake up in 2017 … to find that Turkey has all the local influence and all the local leverage, and we have exactly none or precious little,” said Jennifer Cafarella, a Syria analyst with the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.

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THE VIEW FROM MOSCOW AND DAMASCUS

Despite Assad’s opposition to the Turkish incursion, his ally Moscow appears to be tolerating it in order to further cultivate its warming ties with Ankara.

Russia and Turkey have been finding common ground on Syria. Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Erdogan have met several times since August, after Ankara apologized for downing a Russian warplane a year ago. Russian and Turkish military chiefs met three times in as many months, and Russian media say Moscow is sharing military intelligence with Ankara.

With the better ties, Russia likely aims to exploit Turkey’s strains with the West. Turkey, in turn, prevents Moscow from growing closer to the Kurds.

Russia could see advantages in the Turkish foray — for example, in the city of Aleppo, where Assad’s Russian-backed forces are threatening to crush the eastern, rebel-held enclave. Ankara is unlikely to risk its rapprochement with Moscow by sending its allied Syrian factions to rescue the opposition part of the city.

Russia, however, must also deal with its ally Assad’s opposition to Turkish influence in Syria.

Turkey had to briefly halt its airstrikes around al-Bab after Syrian air defenses locked on its warplanes last week. The strikes resumed this week, raising speculation Moscow mediated.

Thursday’s Turkish casualties could be a sign Damascus views Turkey’s advance so close to al-Bab as a step too far. Ankara’s account of how the three soldiers died is disputed by Syrian activists, who said they were killed by an Islamic State suicide attack the day before.

Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said Damascus “cannot accept having one Turkish soldier remain” in Syria.

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Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, and Lolita Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.

‘Atheist Muslims’ could be the key to defeating Islamic terror

‘Atheist Muslims’ could be the key to defeating Islamic terror

new york post

Ali A. Rizvi says there’s a wisdom to be found in non-religious people from Muslim backgrounds.Photo: Alishba Zarmeen

I was raised in three Muslim majority countries — Libya, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan — and arrived in North America in my mid-20s. Two years after I settled in Canada, September 11 happened. Nineteen hijackers acting in the name of my parents’ religion — 15 from a country I grew up in — flew fuel-laden airliners into the World Trade Center, killing thousands.

From the ashes, two opposing narratives began to emerge, as it happens with most issues in the US: one on the right, and one on the left.

And today, in a nation more divided than ever after a rancorous election season, the differences couldn’t be more stark.

The right is clear: We’re at war with Islamic terrorists. They started it, and we must respond. We know the common denominator here, so enough with the political correctness — we must keep our country safe, and if that means profiling Muslims, restricting Muslim immigration or even “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” as President-elect Donald Trump proposed last year, so be it.

No, says the left. We need to be nuanced. Read through our history. Islamists are simply responding to America’s atrocities around the world. We’re the imperialists who colonized them, held them down under the boot of the military-industrial complex and built our civilization at their expense. We must look at the underlying grievances and root causes driving this. The “biggest terrorist operation that exists,” according to uber-leftist hero Noam Chomsky, is actually the one being run by Obama.

Both of these narratives miss the mark. One assumes that Muslims are inherently violent because Islam is inherently violent. The other paints the act of criticizing Islam as bigotry against all Muslims.

The key distinction both sides miss is that Islam is an idea. Muslims are people.

Human beings have rights and are entitled to respect; ideas, books and beliefs don’t and aren’t. No belief is sacred, but our right to believe what we want is.

Not making this distinction leads the far right to demonize all Muslims because of the problems in Islam, and the far left to completely ignore legitimate problems with Islam in an effort to defend Muslims. The result? One side calling for a ban on Muslims and the other pretending Islamic terrorism doesn’t exist.

Photo: Shutterstock

I’m a liberal atheist who grew up as part of a Muslim family. I’m not alone. Recent polls reveal millions of secular agnostics and atheists in the Muslim world, though you probably won’t hear about them unless they’re being flogged in prison, executed by the state, or murdered by a mob. A WIN/Gallup poll found that 19 percent of people in Saudi Arabia — the historical birthplace of Islam and Muhammad — identify as “non-religious”; for perspective, that number is 15 percent in Italy. The same poll shows that 5 percent of Saudis — over a million people — identify as “convinced atheists,” the same percentage as in the US.

Secularists in the Muslim world are growing fast and targeted viciously within their communities. Make no mistake, these freethinking dissidents — fighting to bring universal values like free expression, liberty and equality to their people — are not shy about criticizing Islam. They are putting their lives on the line to do this, and many have died for it. They are your most dedicated allies.

But when you fail to distinguish between the ideology we’re fighting and the people that make up our families, friends and loved ones, you’re shutting us out.

After Trump announced his Muslim ban, Fareed Zakaria, one of the world’s most respected American journalists, felt he had to embrace his Muslim identity. “I am not a practicing Muslim,” he wrote. “My wife is Christian, and we have not raised our children as Muslims. My views on faith are complicated — somewhere between deism and agnosticism. I am completely secular in my outlook.”

Why embrace the Muslim label then?

When you fail to distinguish between the ideology we’re fighting and the people that make up our families, friends and loved ones, you’re shutting us out.

“As I watch the way in which Republican candidates are dividing Americans, I realize that it’s important to acknowledge the religion into which I was born,” he continued. “I am appalled by Donald Trump’s bigotry and demagoguery not because I am a Muslim but because I am an American.”

Do we really want to force well-integrated, patriotic American Muslims like Zakaria back into tribal categories under a President Trump?

The greatest thing about America is that it empowers people to rise above their birth identities. This is certainly true of American Muslims. Look at Muhammad Ali. Or Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic Records, who brought us the voices of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Led Zeppelin. Or comedian Dave Chappelle. Or actor Aziz Ansari, who is avowedly secular but was incensed at Trump for unfairly targeting Muslims like his parents.

Reducing their identity to just “Muslim” doesn’t help successful, hard-working Muslim-Americans rise above it. It throws them back, categorizing, ghettoizing, and tribalizing them. It alienates those who would otherwise be allies.

We should be able to criticize any doctrinal idea openly while also standing up for the right of people to believe in them. The left’s failure to honestly address the Islamism problem from a position of moral strength has left a void that the Trumpian right has opportunistically — and successfully — exploited in a very divisive way, alienating reformist dissidents in the Muslim world who feel betrayed by liberals and conservatives alike. Today — more than ever — those fighting for freedom there need the support of those who love freedom here.

Ali A. Rizvi, a writer and a medical communications professional, is the author of “The Atheist Muslim: A Journey from Religion to Reason” (St. Martin’s), out now. Twitter: @aliamjadrizvi