Pakistan using informal intelligence channels to prop up Taliban fight against ISIS

KABUL — As the Islamic State-Khorasan is ramping up attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan is using a network of informal channels to feed intelligence and technical support to the Taliban to combat the threat, according to two Taliban leaders.

Pakistan is passing the group raw information as well as helping it monitor phone and Internet communication to identify Islamic State members and operational hubs, according to a senior Taliban leader who, along with a Taliban commander and others in this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

A Pakistani official described the communication between the two sides as informal discussions, rather than an established intelligence-sharing partnership.

Pakistan appears to be one of the few foreign governments directly aiding the Taliban in the Islamic State fight, despite concerns from the United States and other countries that Afghanistan could once again become a haven for militants to carry out attacks on international targets if the Taliban is unable to contain them. Regional rivalries, deep-rooted distrust and the Taliban’s counterterrorism shortcomings have also complicated intelligence sharing with the group, according to current and former U.S. officials.

“Pakistan is our brother and they support us in many ways, including sharing information and intelligence [about the Islamic State]. If the United States and the rest of the world shares information with us we could defeat Daesh in just days,” said the senior Taliban leader, using another name for the Islamic State.

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A Taliban spokesman, Bilal Karimi, pushed back against statements from Taliban members that the group needs international cooperation to fight other militants. The Islamic State “is not a serious threat to the Islamic Emirate. We don’t see it as a major challenge, so we don’t need any outside support to tackle this issue.”

It is unclear how much intelligence countries like the United States would be able to share. Without an embassy or military presence in Afghanistan, U.S. intelligence gathering capabilities have been crippled, and the Taliban has previously denounced the United States for flying drones over Afghan territory.

Current and former U.S. officials said there are ongoing challenges in re-establishing an effective intelligence network in region. .

Intelligence agencies have maintained an array of formal and informal links to the Taliban since the departure of U.S. forces in August, and Americans have routinely sought to share information about Islamic State operations with Taliban counterparts. But, in many cases, the Taliban has appeared uninterested, apparently distrustful of the data or unsure of how to take action on it, according to a U.S. official familiar with communications with the Afghan group.

The Pakistani foreign ministry official said “Pakistan did discuss counter terrorism cooperation with the Afghan Taliban” during a recent visit of Pakistan’s intelligence chief and foreign minister to Kabul. But the official added: “It’s a bit early to say information sharing [or] intelligence cooperation is ongoing.”

“Any cooperation with Kabul can’t be ruled out,” the Pakistani official noted. “Not only Pakistan but other regional states like Russia and Iran are concerned about ISIS. So there could be a counterterrorism understanding at the regional level.”

Despite those regional concerns, the Biden administration is struggling to create stronger military and intelligence partnerships with Afghanistan’s close neighbors, the current and former U.S. officials said. Pakistan and Tajikistan have so far refused to host U.S. bases that would allow the United States to maintain “over-the-horizon” pressure on terrorist threats in Afghanistan.

“There are shrinking options regarding countries on which the U.S. could rely for staging counterterrorism operations,” said Lisa Curtis, a former adviser on South Asia to the White House National Security Council and now director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. Currently, the bulk of the U.S. military assets available for a possible strike in Afghanistan remain in Qatar, some 1,200 miles away, making their use “expensive and risky,” she said.

The head of the U.S. Central Command said it was “yet to be seen” if the Taliban could stop the Islamic State or al-Qaeda from using Afghan territory to launch international terrorist attacks.

“We could get to that point, but I do not yet have that level of confidence,” Gen. Kenneth McKenzie said in testimony to lawmakers last month.

Afghanistan’s close neighbors are equally concerned about the rise of the Islamic State in Afghanistan, despite a reluctance to work with the United States due to numerous conflicts and competition.

At a meeting last week in Moscow, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Russia’s “Central Asian friends” have assured him that they do not want U.S. military units stationed in their countries. While the U.S. military established temporary bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan following the Sept. 11, 2001 al-Qaeda attacks, those agreements have long since been vacated.

“The situation right now is very different” than it was when that post-9/11 cooperation took place, said Nargis Kassenova, a senior fellow at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies’ program on Central Asia, at a panel discussion convened last month by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s branch in Moscow. This has given Russia far more influence over the Central Asian states, Kassenova said.

“The last time the American military was present in Central Asia, relations between the biggest powers of the world, Russia and the United States and now China, were much better,” Kassenova said. Today “Russia sees any attempt from the American side to come closer to its borders as a sign of attacking its core interests. For Central Asia, it would be a very costly thing to agree to have something like that on their territory.”

Outreach to the Taliban over possible militant spillover has been made by Iran, which shares a 570-mile border with Afghanistan, and China, which fearing increased Islamic State recruitment of Uyghurs, a Muslim minority in western China under relentless pressures from Beijing including “reeducation camps” that have been denounced by the West, rights groups and others.

In a recent video conference with security chiefs of ex-Soviet states, Russian President Vladimir Putin charged that there was a clear “concentration of extremist and terrorist groups” near Afghanistan’s northern borders, focusing on inciting ethnic and religious conflicts and religious hatred.

“The terrorists’ leaders are hatching plots for spreading their influence to the Central Asian countries and Russian regions,” he said according to the Russian news agency Tass.

The Islamic State has far fewer fighters in Afghanistan than the Taliban — roughly 2,000 according to the latest United Nations estimate, compared to Taliban ranks estimated at more than 70,000 — but many fear it could grow if the Taliban fractures or if disaffected Taliban members seeking a return to the battlefield peel off to join other groups.

After the fall of Kabul, the Islamic State launched a campaign of direct assaults on Taliban security forces as well as escalating violence against Afghanistan’s Shiite minority, which it regards as heretical.

In a month-long spree beginning in mid-September, the Islamic State carried out 47 attacks, ranging from assassinations and assaults on military checkpoints to suicide bombings at Shiite mosques that killed dozens, according to an analysis by ExTrac, a private British company that monitors violence by militants in Afghanistan and other conflict zones. All but seven of the attacks targeted Taliban fighters, the analysis said.

Previously Islamic State attacks sharply declined after a series of U.S.-led operations largely cleared territory held by the group in eastern Afghanistan between 2018 and 2020.

Since then, Islamic State cells moved to urban areas where Afghan government forces with close U.S. support maintained pressure on the group with raids and other ground operations. U.S. surveillance drones and air support were also key to the fight under the previous Afghan government, but even with such assets, government forces were unable to eliminate the Islamic State in Afghanistan.

Now, the Islamic State’s Afghan branch appears to be positioning itself as the primary military opposition to Taliban rule, said Charlie Winter, a terrorism analyst and ExTrac’s director of research.

“There’s been an apparent effort on IS-K’s part to appeal to a broader base of Afghan society,” Winter said. “Instead of jihadi-whacko movement, they’re framing themselves as a resistance movement against the Taliban, specially geared toward undermining its government.”

The Taliban has responded by carrying out mass arrests — including at least 1,500 in Nangahar province, near the Pakistan border, Winter said, citing reports and interviews by ExtTrac researchers.

The Taliban’s ability to maintain security in largely rural parts of the country that have been under its control for years is a key component of the movement’s popularity in Afghanistan. Taliban leadership has repeatedly pledged to extend that level of security nationwide, but some Taliban members admit doing so requires skills the group does not have.

“When we entered Kabul we didn’t have a professional police force, but training has started and we are building that now,” the senior Taliban leader said. “But even now we are very strong against Daesh. We don’t even arrest many of them, we just kill them,” he said of suspected Islamic State members apprehended by his fighters.

Images shared on social media show a series of killings in eastern Afghanistan where bodies were left in public places accompanied by notes warning others that this is the fate of those who work with the Islamic State. The images could not be independently verified, and Taliban leadership refused to say if the group’s fighters were responsible.

The global Islamic State movement is also now depicting Afghanistan as the epicenter of its ideological struggle. The group’s main propaganda organs have trumpeted the successes of its Afghan affiliate, describing the anti-Taliban campaign in an official statement as a “new stage in the blessed jihad.”

The Islamic State “has positioned Afghanistan as a foremost priority — both in terms of media and military activity — since the withdrawal of the U.S. and the Taliban’s subsequent takeover,” said Rita Katz, founder of SITE Intel Group, a Bethesda-based company that tracks militant groups’ online messaging.

“Meanwhile, ISIS media, both official and unofficial, is now focused primarily on labeling the Taliban as ‘apostates’ warning that Afghanistan will be ‘the cemetery of the Taliban.’ I can’t recall seeing an ISIS campaign this strong in recent years against one specific target.”

Taliban leaders say they plan to respond with a large scale operation to defeat the Islamic State in the coming weeks.

Aziz Ahmad Tawakol, a senior member of Taliban intelligence in Kabul, said his forces are preparing for the fight by expanding intelligence networks and refurbishing American surveillance equipment left behind by the former Afghan government. But he denied receiving outside help to do so, saying such exchanges of information only happen at the most senior levels of the movement.

“If someone knows English, they can use the Internet and with the Internet we can learn how to use any equipment,” he said.

“We already defeated the United States, so we believe we can defeat Daesh as well and in less time,” he said. “Soon no one will even remember their name.”

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