Reports related to an increasing presence of "Islamic State" in Afghanistan are on the rise. For a country already shaken by terrorism, these reports are a nightmare for many Afghans.
"There are men with black flags and black clothes," nervously reports Gol Mohammad. "I have seen them brandishing heavy weapons and driving luxury cars," he states when describing the fighters.
In Farah Province's Khake Safed district, in western Afghanistan, the fighters just appeared one day. Since then, rumors have become more frequent. The people are afraid. "We fear them more than the Taliban," says Gol Mohammad whose home is also located in this district. "Until now, they have left us alone, but that can change soon." Whether or not the hooded men really are "IS" militants from Iraq, is hard for him to say.
Whether "IS" has also gained a foothold in Afghanistan, is unclear. An official statement does not yet exist. In Pakistan, an allegiance video has emerged. Some Afghan fighters in several parts of the country are said to have claimed to be part of the movement.
In Farah (West-Afghanistan), in Helmand (South Afghanistan), and in Zabul (East Afghanistan), there were reports of men dressed in black who did not speak the language of the Taliban. They seem to be financially independent, and also carry around the "IS" flag. Several Afghan officials have expressed concern about this development.
Former Afghan warlord Ismail Khan, who until recently was the Minister for Energy and Water, spoke at a press conference in mid-January about a looming warfront. "Foreign men are recruiting and training Safed militants in the Khake District. As early as spring, there will be battles.
The government should be prepared for it," said Ismail Khan. The area is located 150 kilometers from the city of Herat and lies on the border to Iran. At the same time, he admitted that he could not say for sure if these foreigners were "IS" militants.
While former President Hamid Karzai was on the defensive as to a potential threat posed by "IS" in Afghanistan, voices from the current government sound more concerned. Last week, Afghanistan's CEO Abdullah Abdullah, together with Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, warned that the topic of "IS" is not to be underestimated.
"The problem of IS requires a better and more serious cooperation between countries" (Iran and Afghanistan, ed. note), says Abdullah. In the past few weeks, numerous reports and statements by Afghan officials confirm this position.
No imminent danger
Experts, however, do not share these concerns. Borhan Osman, analyst at the Afghanistan Analysts Network is skeptical of the reports on "IS" in Afghanistan. "It is too early to judge whether 'IS' in Afghanistan is gaining ground."
"Islamic State" poses no imminent threat. Rather, the recent internal conflicts within the leadership of the Taliban have led to separate militia groups. As signs of their separation from the Taliban, some of these groups have worn different clothing and carried other flags. Abdul Khaliq Noorzai, the district administrator in Khake Safed, has repeatedly reported having seen militants with "IS" flags.
At the same time, he admitted that this group of fighters split from the Taliban after a dispute between two Taliban commanders. "After the dispute, one of the two commanders acquired a former Mujahideen base and has been training militia there. Their tents display black flags," says Noorzai.
This confirms Osman's view, who argues that an extension of "IS" in Afghanistan is unlikely. "IS" militants have perhaps inspired some fighters in the region, but their actual presence remains in their original hub of Syria and Iraq, the analyst added.
Others see the rise of reports on IS in Afghanistan as mere propaganda. Afghan analyst and former official of the Taliban government, Waheed Mozhda believes the withdrawal of the international troops plays a significant role.
"Afghan intelligence is trying to create this image to keep the foreign troops in the country after 2016. The financial aid by the United States and other countries to the Afghan National Army has not been enough and it will even decrease. Now there is this idea, that with the help of the 'IS' issue, international aid will keep flowing," said Mozhda, adding that this has a big impact on the population. The previous Afghan government always tried to portray the human side of the Taliban, whereas the new government is using "IS" to spread rumors, the analyst believes.
Are the Taliban the lesser of two evils?
Many Afghans are horrified at the idea of having "IS" fighters in their country. This may seem surprising given that the country has been terrorized by the Taliban for years. "It's plausible that the Taliban now come across as being moderate and forthcoming," said Borhan Osman, referring to the differences between both extremist organizations.
Afghanistan and Pakistan have their own domestic militant groups. Driven by local issues, they usually limit their fighting to within their country's borders. This makes them different from "Islamic State," which seeks to forge a worldwide caliphate. Moreover, the Afghan Taliban respect ethnic and religious differences which are not accepted by "IS," said Osman, adding that the Taliban and "IS" have "the least in common" among jihadist groups. in Syria and Iraq."