By Shadi Khan Saif
Days after the U.S. dropped the so-called ‘Mother of All Bombs’ (MOAB) on the Daesh hideouts in Afghanistan, the group managed to orchestrate yet another lethal assault in the capital Kabul signifying the underlining grim threats posed by this group in the conflict-riddled country.
Acknowledging the severity of the threat posed by Daesh to peace and stability of Afghanistan, the Afghan forces as well as the U.S. forces stationed in the country appear to be quite focused on eliminating this threat, and denying it any chance to spread.
However, Wednesday's suicide attack in the heart of Kabul, which targeted foreign troops, and killed eight civilians, has proven that the group remains capable of striking wherever and whenever it wants.
This was the fourth major attack claimed by the Daesh in Kabul recently. It followed the brazen March 8 attack on the Sardar Mohammad Dawood Khan Hospital that killed up to 50, the Feb. 7 suicide attack on the Supreme Court that claimed 22 lives, and the twin suicide attack on Shia protesters last July that claimed up to 80 lives.
Mirco Guenther, Afghanistan Country Director and Coordinator for Asia Peace and Security Project of the German non-government organization Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), told Anadolu Agency that the Nangarhar Province, where the U.S. dropped a huge GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) bomb on April 13, was said to be the only area in Afghanistan where Daesh, or the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), the group's local franchise, continued to maintain a sizable physical presence.
The bomb dropped in a network of tunnels in the eastern province killed at least 90 Daesh militants.
"At the same time, Kabul has also witnessed a number of high-profile terrorist attacks attributed to either ISKP or groups claiming to be associated with the IS [Daesh]. In the capital, they were certainly among the most visible groups in the past two years," he said.
Guenther added that the prospect of an increasing Daesh presence in Afghanistan might also help explain, at least partly, the re-emergence of Russia as an important actor on matters related to security in the country and the region.
"Moscow considers especially a Daesh presence in Afghanistan a threat to its own security and that of its Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) allies, such as Tajikistan, or Uzbekistan for that matter under the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)," he said.
A significant amount of foot soldiers for Daesh comes from the Caucasus and Central Asia. Afghan officials believe an overwhelming majority of Daesh fighters in eastern Afghanistan comes from Pakistan, and those in the northern provinces are mostly of Central Asian descent.
"Hundreds of foreign fighters from the Caucasus and Central Asia have joined the ranks of Daesh in recent years.
"So, preventing the Islamic State [Daesh] from gaining a larger foothold in close proximity to Central Asia is a key objective for Russia, which, after the withdrawal of Russian troops from the Tajik-Afghan border in 2005, has kept its largest military base outside its own borders in Tajikistan, the 201st Military Base”, Guenther said.
In northern Jawzjan province bordering Turkmenistan, Daesh militants killed six workers of the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) in February. Two ICRC workers are still believed to be in their custody. Fighting for turf and resources between the Taliban and Daesh are also frequent in Jawzjan and a number of other northern provinces.
Retired Brig. Mohammad Arif, a Kabul-based analyst on security affairs, believes the Daesh militants in Afghanistan are in fact getting stronger and lethal with time.
"If you compare their activities and the scale and timing of their attacks with that of the operations launched by the Afghan and the U.S. forces, you would see they [Daesh] have become more dangerous in terms of waging attacks in, for example, Kabul," Arif told Anadolu Agency.
In an exclusive interview with the Anadolu Agency in Turkish capital Ankara last month, Hekmat Khalil Karzai, Afghanistan’s Deputy Foreign Minister, expressed concerns about the possible return of militants from Iraq and Syria who are fighting both for and against Daesh.
"We are reaching out and talking to our neighbors and preparing our security forces. This is something with which not just us but all regional countries should be concerned," he said.
There are different estimates as to the current strength of the Daesh in Afghanistan. The NATO-led Resolute Support Mission (RSM) is planning to eliminate Daesh-Khorasan terror group in Afghanistan this year.
"We believe that there are currently about 700 Daesh fighters located in southern Nangarhar province with about 200-300 additional fighters in Kunar province.
"This is substantially fewer Daesh fighters than this time last year," the RSM spokesman U.S. Capt. Bill Salvin told Anadolu Agency.
"The efforts of the Afghans, with the assistance of U.S. combat enablers has reduced the Daesh presence by more than half and the number of districts where they are present by more than two-thirds," he added.
Meanwhile, Arif considers Daesh militants are cunningly pursuing a hardline agenda and seeking to control lucrative avenues for income and influence.
"If you see the areas picked by the group [Daesh] you would see a clear pattern. For example, in the beginning, Daesh emerged in areas of Helmand well-known for lucrative poppy trade.
"Then they surfaced in eastern Afghanistan’s areas known for cross-border smuggling of narcotics, timber and all sorts of stuff, and even in the north, the group is aiming to dominate the route on which narcotics are smuggled to Central Asia and subsequently Europe," he said.
The former Afghan National Army (ANA) officer fears just like any guerrilla and revolutionary movement, the Daesh fighters in Syria and Iraq might choose Afghanistan as an escape route and new bastion.
"I fear if more foreign militants came here, they all would push towards the Central Asian states where oppressive regimes have so far exerted tight control over extremists, but one can expect anything from Daesh, and you never know, they might just form a very formidable 'Khalifat' in Central Asia”, Arif said.