PESHAWAR: As Pakistan takes its battle against militants to its logical end in its tribal borderlands, another virulently violent and deadly threat is rearing its head on the country’s western borders in Afghanistan, where local residents and journalists say the self-styled Islamic State or Daesh has gained a toehold to spread its influence on both sides of the borders.
The group has resources and manpower and found safe havens in the foothills of the White Mountain (Speen Ghar) on the other side of the Durand Line, where it has virtually established its writ.
This mighty mountain range is serving as a natural barrier to the spillover of the IS from Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province to the adjacent areas of Fata.
Reports from the areas across the border suggest the IS has effectively controlled three districts in Nangarhar that lies in the foothills of the White Mountain.
The Taliban have been driven out, while the Afghan government has already lost its control over these areas.
Around 20,000 families mostly from Shinwari tribe have been forced to migrate to Jalalabad, the provincial capital, over threats, reports foreign media.
An Afghan journalist from Nangarhar said the IS had a complete hold at least in three districts, including Achin.
He said the situation was the worst and that civilians were being tortured as the Taliban and Afghan government had vacated those areas.
“My family hasn’t gone to the village since the IS emerged there.”
Like the proscribed Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the IS is also a syndicate of different militant commanders from Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Militants, who were expelled from Khyber, Orakzai and central Kurram agencies in the wake of operations by the Pakistan Army, moved to Afghanistan and set up bases in the White Mountain’s foothills.
Several TTP commanders had declared their allegiance to IS head Abu Bakar Al Baghdadi.
Significantly, Commander Hafiz Saeed, who has been declared representative of Baghdadi and head of the so-called Khorassan State consisting of parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan, also belongs to Orakzai Agency.
One Afghan source said most of IS fighters came from Orakzai Agency. He said the IS had restored abandoned infrastructure of the Afghan Mujahideen in Achin district.
A senior leader of Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl from Hangu also substantiated tip of the Afghan source and said a large number of people had been recruited from Orakzai and Hangu for the IS.
“Certainly, a large number of people has joined IS for fighting in the Middle East,” he said.
A report submitted by the Balochistan government in November 2014 had also confirmed a large-scale recruitment for the IS in Kurram, Orakzai and adjacent Hangu district.
Location of the place, where the IS has established its stronghold, is important.
The White Mountain that demarcates Khyber and Kurram agencies from Nangarhar on one hand is natural protection wall to stop physical spillover of the IS, but its deep passes and gorges on the other can serve the most secured spots for the group.
The US Air Force had carried out relentless bombing to dismantle Al Qaeda hideouts, including Tora Bora caves complex, in White Mountain in 2001. The fleeing Al Qaeda fighters entered Kurram Agency via Parachamkani, mountainous area in central Kurram.
Pakistani security forces had arrested 156 foreign militants including Arabs in December 2001. The gunfight took places between security forces and foreign militants in Kurram on December 19, 2001, when apprehended militants made attempt to snatch guns from security personnel. Human movement is possible through these passes and ravines.
Hezb-i-Islami of Maulvi Younas Khalis, guerrilla group during the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan, which had basis in Nangarhar, were supplying weapons via Ziran Tangi, a narrow passage that is the shortest and safe route from Parachinar to Nangarhar.
Other Jihadi outfits were also using Dogar area in central tehsil of Kurram for transportation of manpower and weapons.
Movement in the 16,500 feet high White Mountain may be difficult but not impossible.
The area, where the White Mountain ends, links Paktia province with Kurram Agency. Here the cross-border movement becomes less arduous. Given its strategic location, the Pakistan security apparatus has no or little presence to guard the territory against the IS and other militant outfits.
Geographically and topographically, Kurram is very sensitive. The area is surrounded by Afghanistan from three sides – Nangarhar in north and Paktia and Khost in south. Majority of the population in upper and lower parts of Kurram is ‘heretic’, according to the IS dogma, which the group has applied in Iraq and Syria.
The IS elements are gaining ground in Afghanistan due to financial resources, but Islamabad and Kabul are busy in blame game.
The Afghan government blames Islamabad for growing insurgency in Afghanistan, while Islamabad accuses Kabul of providing shelter to anti-state elements on its soil. Both countries have yet to evolve a joint strategy to tackle the emerging threat in the shape of the IS in the region.
Published in Dawn, October 18th , 2015