The Afghan government said Tuesday that forces belonging to the Islamic State terrorist organization have taken root in the country, the first official acknowledgment that the group based in Iraq and Syria had reached so far to the east.
Officials said the Islamic State presence includes a relatively small number of Afghan and foreign fighters who have not carried out independent operations but were using Afghanistan as a transit point en route to other battlefields.
They have not allied with the much larger Taliban and in some cases have clashed with the Afghan group, which reports to a different leader and observes a different political ideology, the officials said. But some hard-line Taliban members have pledged loyalty to the Islamic State group’s top cleric, Abu Bakr Baghdadi.
The Islamic State’s presence, though still small, adds a fresh complication to the Afghan government’s efforts to make peace with Taliban insurgents as well as the Obama administration’s plans to withdraw the remaining 9,800 U.S. troops by the end of 2016.
“Daesh is here, they do exist,” Abdul Salam Rahimi, chief of staff to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, said in an interview, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
Afghan officials said they did not believe the Islamic State’s presence would change the Taliban’s calculations on efforts to open the first formal peace talks with Kabul to end more than 13 years of conflict. Since taking office six months ago, Ghani has aggressively courted Pakistan — where Taliban leaders are based — to raise pressure on the fighters to renounce violence and join his government.
Baghdadi has insulted the Taliban’s leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, calling him a “fool” and an “illiterate warlord.” Taliban fighters are almost exclusively Afghan and have been focused for over a decade on battling U.S.-led coalition forces and the government in Kabul, not on joining the global jihadist movement.
The groups have clashed in recent weeks in the eastern provinces of Logar and Nangarhar in what local officials described as turf wars, although the reports could not be independently confirmed.