Despite the obvious incentive for both Russia and NATO to cooperate in the fight against the growing threat of ISIS in Afghanistan, there is little chance of any coordination in the near future.

An Afghan demonstrator during a rally in central Kabul, Afghanistan, July 23, 2016. ISIS claimed responsibility for the terror attack, which took place during the demonstration and killed about 80 people. Photo: AP

Following a July 23 terror attack by the militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the Afghan capital of Kabul, government forces declared their plans to advance into the territory of ISIS in the east of the country. On July 27 special units of the U.S. armed forces arrived in the province of Nangarhar, which is considered to be an ISIS holdout in the east of Afghanistan, with the goal of supporting the Afghan troops.

The government of Afghanistan warns that if the terrorists are not stopped now, they could threaten Central Asian countries as well as Russia. Mohammad Hanif Atmar, the national security advisor to the president of Afghanistan, called on Russia and NATO to renew their cooperation against ISIS forces within the country. Nevertheless, a NATO-Russia Council meeting on July 13 demonstrated that the parties have no intention to resume their dialogue until the Minsk agreements regarding the situation in the southeast of Ukraine are fully implemented.

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ISIS, a terrorist group banned by Russia, claimed responsibility for the terror attack on July 23, which killed 80 people. Suicide bombers detonated explosive devices during a peaceful march by the Hazaras – a minority Shia group of Mongol and Iranian descent that lives in Afghanistan. They protested over government plans to lay a power line from Turkmenistan to Afghanistan, bypassing the territories settled by the Hazaras. The Hazaras believe that the Pashtun government deliberately hinders the development of the territories populated by ethnic national minorities: They don’t want to put power lines or build roads in those areas.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani condemned the terror attack and suggested that the terrorists are striving to escalate inter-ethnic differences in Afghan society and seek revenge after Kabul and Washington adopted a tougher stance towards the Afghan underground terrorist groups. According to the Afghan government, those groups are mainly concentrated in the eastern part of the country along the border with Pakistan.

The Nangarhar province in this area is considered the main stronghold of ISIS terrorists that infiltrate Afghanistan through a poorly guarded border with Pakistan. According to the Afghan government, the perpetrators of the July terror attacks in Kabul may be of Pakistani descent. However, Islamabad denies those claims and refuses to strengthen border control measures.

Immediately after the terror attack in Kabul, the Afghan government began a large-scale offensive against ISIS in the east of Afghanistan – exactly in the area of the Afghan-Pakistani border. The United States declared that it would support this operation of the Afghan army. On July 27, John Nicholson, commander of the U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, announced that Washington would deploy an additional military contingent to the Nangarhar province to support the operation.

At the same time, he stressed that the U.S. soldiers who are members of the international anti-terrorism coalition would not be part of the contingent. He refused to provide the exact information about the strength of the contingent. If that doesn’t result in success, within a month Afghanistan will see a ground war operation with the participation of U.S. soldiers, said the commander in his interview to the Washington Post.

Experts interviewed by Russia Direct believe that during the anti-terror operation in the east of Afghanistan, government and U.S. troops will face the same problem that the anti-ISIS coalition encounters in Syria and Iraq, namely, the difficulty in distinguishing between moderate and radical Islamist groups.

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“For the most part, militants who declared their support for ISIS in Afghanistan came out of the Taliban movement, former members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan or other members of underground terrorist groups operating in the Afghanistan-Pakistan area who feel resentful. It is now unclear how the Americans will distinguish those terrorists from the true ISIS followers that are also present on Afghanistan,” independent Uzbek political analyst Rafael Sattarov told Russia Direct.

Sattarov believes that in order to move forward in solving the problem of the terrorist Islamist underground in the east of Afghanistan, Afghan and American troops need to strengthen the security of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to prevent terrorists from freely crossing it.

“The fact that we started seeing ISIS militants in Afghanistan might mean a rebranding of extremist groups. It is obvious that they all have different goal: The Taliban project was regarded as a restoration of power in Afghanistan. ISIS is a Middle Eastern project aimed mostly against Iran. The Taliban declared on numerous occasions that they did not support the radical ideas of ISIS,” Sanat Kushkumbaev, deputy director of the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies under the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, told Russia Direct.

He clarified that external forces often mistakenly believe Afghanistan itself to be the main source of the problems. “It is not the country that is the source of threats but its territory. In such circumstances the government, society and the country as a whole become hostages of the threats of terrorism and extremism coming from its territory. It is important to understand that, if one wants to destroy the Afghan terrorist underground,” added Kushkumbaev.

A new perspective on Afghanistan

Washington’s decision to deploy an additional special military contingent is a logical extension of the revision of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan that has been taking place since the beginning of this year. This revision started following a failure of the four-party talks on the settlement of the situation on Afghanistan that took place in March and enjoyed Washington’s active support.

Apart from the representatives of the official Afghan authorities and the moderate Taliban, officials of the U.S., Pakistan and China also took part in the negotiations. The Taliban insisted that they would move forward with negotiations only after the complete withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. The U.S. responded to the Taliban ultimatum just as bluntly: On May 22, U.S. unmanned aerial vehicles killed a Taliban leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour.

On June 11, U.S. President Barack Obama made a decision to expand the authority of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan, allowing them to intensify airstrikes in support of the Afghan forces’ ground operations against the Taliban. Furthermore, on July 6, President Obama declared before the NATO Summit in Poland that the U.S. would slow down the troop pullout from Afghanistan. As a result, by 2017 there would be 8,400 troops left in Afghanistan as opposed to the plans last fall to decrease their number to 5,500. That decision gained the support of all members of the North Atlantic Alliance.

Thus, currently there is a 12,000-strong foreign military contingent stationed in Afghanistan: of them 9,800 thousand troops are provided by the U.S. and over 2,000 by other NATO member states.

Furthermore, the participants to the North Atlantic Alliance Summit, which took place on July 8-9 in Poland, agreed to extend the operation in Afghanistan for another year. As part of the framework of this operation, since January 2015 NATO servicemen have been conducting professional training for Afghan soldiers. Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General, declared during the Summit that their goal was “to help Afghanistan stabilize in securing their own country… and prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven for international terrorists.”

The new plans of NATO and the U.S. mean that, 15 years after the start of the military campaign, the situation in Afghanistan is far from being stable. Meanwhile President Obama, who is due to step down as president in 2017, has to admit that he was not able to fulfill one of his major pre-election pledges: to bring all U.S. troops back home from Afghanistan.

Ukrainian stumbling block on Afghanistan

On July 13, the situation in Afghanistan became one of the major points of discussion during a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council that took place in Warsaw. This dialogue format allows parties to communicate with each other even when all other forms of cooperation have been put on hold due to a crisis in relations caused by different views on Crimea and the crisis in the southeast of Ukraine.

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Nevertheless, despite the fact that the agenda was announced long before the NATO-Russia Council meeting took place, participants did not have enough time to constructively discuss cooperation on Ukraine. The main reason was that during the meeting the parties focused on the Minsk agreements on settling the crisis in the southeast of Ukraine, and that led to accusations of non-compliance from both sides. As it would be easy to foresee, no specific decisions on Afghanistan were adopted.

“Both NATO and Russia refuse to cooperate on the issue of Afghanistan. The preserved platform of the NATO-Russia Council that now mostly functions as a press bureau does not help to advance this matter. Until there is a breakthrough on the Minsk agreements it is better to forget about cooperation on the issue of Afghanistan,“ Maxim Starchak, a research fellow of the Center for International and Defense Policy of Queen’s University in Canada, told Russia Direct.

Meanwhile, Mohammad Hanif Atmar, national security advisor to the president of Afghanistan, during his recent visit to Moscow deplored the fact that Russia-NATO cooperation on the issue of Afghanistan was put on hold. Atmar stressed that “throughout the 15 years of the military campaign in Afghanistan, Russia-NATO cooperation proved to be useful” and called for its renewal. According to this Afghan high-ranking official, the real danger is the threat of terrorist infiltration from Afghanistan into the neighboring countries of Central Asia and Russia.

However, the experts interviewed by Russia Direct came to the conclusion that currently the most important task for both Russia and the United States is fighting the Islamist terrorist threat in Syria and Iraq. That means the active struggle against the terrorists in Afghanistan is postponed for now. Hopefully, not for another 15 years.