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The impact of the Islamic State in Afghanistan

An attack in Afghanistan Sunday that killed 12 people was claimed by the Taliban and came as the militant group met in Qatar for an all-Afghan peace conference, and as the U.S. and Taliban leaders prepare to resume talks this week. Thomas Gibbons-Neff, a reporter with The New York Times, joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the Taliban, U.S. strategy and the growing presence of the Islamic State.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    In Afghanistan today, the Taliban claimed responsibility for a suicide car bombing that killed at least 12 people and wounded more than 150 others. The explosion occurred outside an Intelligence Department compound in Ghazni. Many of the wounded were students at a nearby high school. The attack came as an all Afghan peace conference–which includes the Taliban–began in Qatar. U.S. Taliban talks are also underway and scheduled to resume Tuesday. I recently spoke with New York Times reporter Thomas Gibbons-Neff–who also served in Afghanistan as a Marine — about the Taliban U.S. strategy and the growing presence of ISIS.

  • Thomas Gibbons-Neff:

    Yeah so I think the best way to think about the war in 2019 versus, say, the war when I was there in 2008 and 2010. It's like looking through a straw, right? The straw at the height of the war– 2010, 2011–was very large. It was all encompassing, it was trying to take–build up the Afghan military, hold territory from the Taliban and pretty much militarily defeat the group. And now, I mean, the straw's kind of like the equivalent of a coffee stirrer, right? The strategy is killing Taliban to keep them at the negotiating table while hopefully coming to some kind of peace agreement that the United States can walk away from and feel comfortable about it.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And what about the Islamic State, the rising influence of that in connection with or in concert with the Taliban?

  • Thomas Gibbons-Neff:

    Right. So the Islamic State in Khorasan, this affiliate that kind of popped up in 2015, leftovers from Pakistani Taliban that kind of re-flagged initially as a small group, and the American military kind of came out and said that as such, we don't think this is a place where the Islamic State can fester, it's just some disgruntled Pakistani, Taliban, or Taliban fighters that have decided to pick up a new brand. But the group quickly grew infused by messaging from the main Islamic State core, as it's often referred to, in Iraq and Syria, and also financially, which is a huge part. And soon their brand–I guess I keep going back to using that term–quickly grew. So it's kind of turned into this own entity and they've kind of been able to out-recruit the pace in which the American military is killing them.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Wow. So why is that recruitment so successful?

  • Thomas Gibbons-Neff:

    I think there's a lot of reasons. I mean, I think what intelligence officials kind of fall back on is that fighting for the Islamic State, it doesn't matter who you are or where you come from, they just–they'll take kind of whoever and atop that, their leadership, unlike, say, compared to the Taliban, is very focused on merit. If you show that you have drive and are intelligent you'll gain rank quicker, you'll be kind of considered more important in the organization than say, you know, in some Taliban groups where you're kind of– your connections are based off familial connections or, you know, bribes et cetera.

    So I mean it's a whole mix of stuff but again, I mean, I think the–this ability, the fact that ISIS in Afghanistan is recruiting from urban centers like Jalalabad and Kabul, disenfranchised youth coming out of universities who are kind of looking for this, this cause to pick up. So it's kind of a perfect maelstrom of conditions.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Strategically, the U.S. military leaders that you speak with, did they think that they can make any greater advances, especially in sort of the mountainous regions where, well there've been resistance fighters in that region for hundreds of years?

  • Thomas Gibbons-Neff:

    I think the strategy, or what the American military is trying to do is keep them, keep the Islamic State in Khorasan in those mountains, right? Those aren't villages, per say, they aren't urban centers. They're, kind of, I think they refer to it as guerrilla territory, right? I mean, you can't logistically supply the American military, the Afghan military to go up there and stay there. It's very inhospitable terrain–weather, logistics, air support. I mean, it all gets strained up in that area. So the strategy really, if you zoom out enough, relies on time–having enough of it to build. Then Afghan forces can handle the Islamic State.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right. Thomas Gibbons-Neff, a reporter in The New York Times Washington bureau. Thanks so much for joining us.

  • Thomas Gibbons-Neff:

    Thanks for having me.

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