The Islamic State group promised locals it would drive out the Taliban, but it replaced that group with something even worse.
By the end of fall 2015, Haji Abdul Zahir Qadeer and the "People's Uprising" he initiated had nearly wiped out the Islamic State group, IS, in Afghanistan, which had quietly taken over control of Nangarhar province's Shinwar district.
Now, less than a year later, IS has spread beyond Shinwar into many other districts and provinces, like nearby Kunar and Khost but also Badakhshan up in the northeast of Afghanistan, bordering China.
Many factors come into play when exploring the reasons why and how IS in Afghanistan spread so quickly, especially after the People’s Uprising had nearly wiped them out: Most blame the infighting among the Taliban, which has seen many of its men abandon the group for IS, while others say that it was the latter’s brand of Salafi Islam and the exploitation of spectacle and social media that helped spread their vision.
Often left out, however, is the mishandling of battlefield operations by the Afghan government, allowing what was once seen as an exclusively foreign phenomena to become an indigenous entity.
From Foreign to Indigenous
When IS first began operating in Nangarhar its members did not present themselves as the ultra violent jihadists they are now famous for being. On the contrary, IS began by convincing locals they were in Shinwar to rid the community of the violence of the Taliban. "Our fight is with them, not you,” the group claimed.
IS kept their word and drove out Taliban fighters from Shinwar. But in the following months IS would begin a reign of terror and domination that had everyone in Shinwar regretting they ever trusted these men, who had seemingly come out of nowhere.
"They sounded like Punjabis," 10-year-old Basir said, alluding to the fact that these men were darker than the local community, spoke Urdu—not the native Pashto—and were presumably from Punjab province in Pakistan. "Some of these Daesh had others translate for them.”
Over the course of several months, through early 2015, IS governed the area with a level of violence and disregard for local customs and normative religious practices previously unseen by the people of Shinwar.
One Shinwar elder who witnessed IS's deranged violence firsthand was still visibly shaken by what he had seen. "They supposedly came to help us live free lives, but then they took 10 men, they were our Mishraan (tribal leaders/elders), and killed them,” he said.
The killings sparked nationwide outcry in Afghanistan not only due to the obscene way the executions were performed, but because the complete disdain these supposed Islamic men had towards the native population's culture and traditions.
The 10 Shinwari leaders were blindfolded then marched to a grassy hill where they were sat on top of explosives that were then detonated.
The entire spectacle was filmed and uploaded to the IS terror organization's social media accounts.
The killings also garnered international attention, something IS in Afghanistan had been craving.
Although the group was largely seen as foreign and outside normative Islam or normative Afghan culture, IS captured the imagination of disillusioned Taliban fighters who were angry with segments of the Taliban leadership who were participating in peace talks with the Afghan government. On the regional front, many Islamic militants in Central Asia were also attracted to IS and would begin to make their plans to join the group inside Afghanistan.
In the video, two boys can be seen holding handguns dressed in IS-style clothing as they walk up behind a blindfolded man, alleged to be a Taliban fighter, who is seen kneeling down with his hands tied behind his back.
The video, which was picked up mostly by tabloid spectacle media in the west, again shocked an already disoriented and confused population.
The executions were carried out in Boti Kot, another district in Nangarhar province. In contrast to Shinwar, the emergence of IS in the region was organic and made up of locals who were once Taliban members who had grown disillusioned with the infighting after the death of a Taliban leader and subsequent power vacuum, along with the potential of a peace deal with the central government.
Although some accounts describe IS in Boti Kot as a mix of Afghans, Pakistanis, Chechens and Uzbeks, most IS members are said to be locals from the area where they operate. This made their hold in the area stronger, but it did not change the brutality they inflicted on Boti Kot district.
"The children of parents who were understood to be government supporters were taken from their homes and put into madrasas where they would be taught the Salafi interpretation of Islam. They’re Takfiri, and claim anyone who disagrees with them is a Kair (non Believer) ” said Mullah Sher, a former resident of Boti Kot who was forced to leave the area due to threats from IS members. “This type of thinking means you are comparing yourself to Allah and believe you can make these life and death decisions based on your ill-conceived beliefs.”
The People's Uprising and the Battle over Legitimate Violence
Haji Abdul Zahir Qadeer had two rockets launched at his home in Jalalabad city within hours of announcing that he would lead a "people's uprising" against IS in Nangarhar province. "I take this very seriously," said Qadir, speaking from his family's compound in Surkhrod district. "I made a declaration to the people of Shinwar and to the people of Afghanistan and I will fulfill that promise."
Within weeks of the announcement made by Qadeer in July 2015, thousands of men had joined him, IS was on the run and the central government was embarrassed due to the lack of action taken by the state.
The embarrassment was twofold for the government: for one, no one had bothered to address the rising IS menace in Afghanistan in any serious way, and even worse was the loss of a monopoly on "legitimate violence" that the U.S. military and the Afghan National Army had been enjoying.
Qadeer and his men dealt major blows to the terror network’s operations by winter of 2015. "They were surrounded and their supply lines were cut, another couple of months and they would have been wiped out," Qadeer said.
The government led by Ashraf Ghani was critical of his efforts, claiming he was looking to usurp power in Nangarhar. The accusations continued against Qadeer for weeks while the government planned a way to take over anti-IS efforts in eastern Afghanistan.
With government pressure mounting against Qadeer, an agreement was made and the "people's uprising" was placed under full control of the central government.
Although the origins of IS have become clearer over time, what is not understood is how the group could be lush with new weapons and uniforms. "IS has everything under the sun, except jets and tanks,” according to Qadeer. “Everything else they have.”
Sources within the Afghan government and intelligence have all hinted that when divisions among Taliban members and leadership became known to government officials, many within the government, including Atmar, were eager to persuade disillusioned Taliban to split from the group and fight against them.
A recent analysis published by Afghanistan Analyst Network echoes the claims that the National Unity Government under President Ghani has funded the disgruntled Taliban members who then turned to IS in Afghanistan. “The Afghan government’s support to Mangal Bagh’s men is an open secret among residents of the Spin Ghar districts near the Durand Line,” it states. “Residents from Achin recall the generous hosting of groups of long-haired Lashkar-e Islam fighters at the houses of Shinwari tribal elders, such as Malek Usman and Malek Niaz, in Achin.”
Athough the IS interpretation of Salfist Islam and the use of incomprehensible violence has isolated the group and managed to unite a polarized Afghanistan against it, IS still manages pose a major threat to stability of the country with their intent to cause a societal rupture based on ethnicity and religious tensions.
Mohammed Harun Arsalai is an independent journalist based in Afghanistan. Follow him on Twitter: @ArsalaiH