(CNSNews.com) – Days before Afghan leaders are due to hold talks with senior administration officials on military and economic assistance issues, the country’s defense ministry on Thursday confirmed that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL/Daesh) has established a presence in Afghanistan, although it played down the seriousness of the threat.
“We do not deny the presence of Daesh in Afghanistan,” the Tolo news agency quoted deputy ministry spokesman Dawlat Waziri as saying, adding that the extent of that presence had been exaggerated.
“I believe that Daesh has failed in Afghanistan and will not become a major threat for the country,” he said.
Waziri was speaking several days after U.N. officials raised concerns about the ISIS infiltration into the country, where Afghan forces supported by a diminished U.S. troop presence continue to fight a Taliban insurgency.
(UNAMA) head Nicholas Haysom told the U.N. Security Council on Monday that although ISIS had yet to establish “firm roots” in the country, it was positioned “to offer an alternative flagpole to which otherwise isolated insurgent splinter groups can rally.”
In a report to the Security Council, U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said “a handful of Afghan and Pakistani Taliban commanders” had pledged fealty to ISIS, “and an increasing number of commanders are reportedly seeking funding from and considering cooperation.”
But, he added, “there is no indication of widespread or systematic support” for the jihadist group in the country.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki on Wednesday characterized the ISIS presence as “fledgling,” and said the administration believes that it “represents a rebranding of a few marginalized Taliban.”
“But we’re still taking this potential threat with its dangerous rhetoric seriously,” she told a briefing. “We’re working closely with the Afghan government to evaluate the dynamic nature of this fledgling network.”
On Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter are due to host Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah at Camp David, Maryland.
In line with President Obama’s amended timeline for the U.S. military drawdown, there are currently around 10,600 U.S. troops in the country. The number is due to drop by around half by year’s end, with all troops out by the end of 2016, apart from a “security assistance component” attached to the U.S. Embassy.
Ghani has been requesting a slowing down in the drawdown plans, and Psaki indicated that would be on the agenda at Camp David.
“President Ghani has requested some flexibility in the troop drawdown timeline and base closure sequencing over the next two years, and we’re actively considering this request,” she said.
U.S. Forces Afghanistan commander Army Gen. John Campbell, who also heads the post-2014 training and support mission known as Operation Resolute Support, has put forward proposals in that regard, and Psaki said any decisions would be for the president to make.
Campbell told the U.S. House Armed Services Committee two weeks ago that there was evidence of ISIS recruiting efforts in Afghanistan. Some Taliban members had rebranded themselves as ISIS, he added.
“The potential emergence of ISIL represents an additional opportunity to bring both Afghanistan and Pakistanis together to confront this common threat,” he said. “We’re all driven to prevent ISIL from establishing a meaningful foothold in Central Asia.”
From its strongholds in northern Syria and Iraq, ISIS is seeking to spread its influence and ideology, and Islamic militants in a number of countries – including the Egyptian Sinai, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan and the Philippines – have pledged allegiance to the group. ISIS also claimed responsibility for an attack at a museum in the Tunisian capital Wednesday in which 30 foreign tourists and three Tunisians were killed.
Concerns that it is making inroads into Afghanistan emerged in recent months:
--a former Taliban leader who reportedly became the area’s ISIS leader, Mullah Rauf Khadem, was killed in an airstrike in Helmand province in February, and the man believed to have succeeded him, Hafiz Wahidi, was killed in an Afghan military operation in the same southern province on Monday.
--Abdullah Abdullah told the Council of Ministers on February 23 he was concerned about the growing presence of ISIS.
“Sometimes this group is exaggerated, and sometimes it’s ignored,” he was quoted as saying. “I want the respected minsters and people to be aware of the issues and realities that we are in.”
--30 people were abducted from vehicles traveling on the Kabul-Kandahar highway in southern Afghanistan last month, and according to eyewitnesses the gunmen singled out members of the Hazara minority. Some also reported that the perpetrators had spoken among themselves in a language none could identify.
--In Logar province south of Kabul, men claiming allegiance to ISIS burned down a shrine and raided local houses in February, destroying television sets, Afghan media reported at the time.
Tolo quoted provincial police commander Abdul Hakeem Ishaqzai as saying the culprits were former Taliban members who were seeking prestige by aligning themselves with a group growing in notoriety.