One recent evening I sat on my bed in a smelly, mosquito-infested room over a kebab shop in the main street of Pol-e Khomri, in northern Afghanistan, and thought about the odds. This had become our safe house. My colleagues and I – a producer from London, an Afghan journalist-cameraman and a tough ex-SAS man from the BBC’s security department – had fixed up a meeting with the commander of a particularly ferocious group of Taliban allies outside the town, and we were waiting for the call to come to see him. Beyond that, there was no knowing.
Through an intermediary, the commander had given us clear undertakings that our lives would not be in danger. I have learned to trust Afghans in that way over the years, pretty much. Still, the particular group he fought for, Hizb-e-Islami, once murdered a BBC man who was filming with them. More immediately, I couldn’t forget the story that our Afghan cameraman had just told me.
A few months earlier, on an assignment not unlike this one, the Taliban had captured him, marched him through the mountains and told him they would cut his head off. And although they didn’t do it, because someone ransomed him in time, he found out enough about the process to be able to explain to me in some detail how it is done. They start at the back, apparently.
In the event, our meeting with the Hizb-e-Islami commander took place and the whole plan worked perfectly smoothly. The commander kept his word and the only injuries we sustained were the mosquito bites.
Nevertheless, the message of his interview was a disturbing one. Afghanistan is a country whose violence, up to now, hasn’t connected too much with that in other parts of Asia or the Muslim world. In this land, isolated by its mountains and deserts and by the attitudes of its people, the conflicts mostly have been fought out within the country rather than being tied up with the general crisis in parts of the Islamic world. The interview with Commander Mirwais, carried out at night in a clearing five minutes’ drive off the main tarmac road a short way from Pol-e Khomri, may indicate that those days are over.
“I know all about Isis,” he said, though he used the Arabic acronym, Daish. “We have links with some Daish members. Muslims are thirsty for an Islamic caliphate in the world. Daish is expanding, conquering entire parts of Syria and Iraq, and we are waiting to see if they meet the requirements for an Islamic caliphate.
“If they do, then we are ready to join them. They are great Islamic fighters, and we pray for them.”
If Islamic State (IS) is able to start operating in Afghanistan, it will be harder than ever for the new government here to take effective control. The military situation is difficult enough already, with fighting on 14 different fronts and important towns such as Kunduz (and Pol-e Khomri, for that matter) in effect surrounded by the Taliban.
Commander Mirwais is simply playing a game of connect the dots. The fighting in Iraq and Syria, the fighting in Libya, perhaps soon even the stand-off in Gaza, could begin to seem like part of some wider, more generalised conflict. Perhaps Afghanistan could fit into it, too.
I don’t mean to sound like one of those articles you read in the Daily Mail, but during the past few months we have seen a step change in the way extreme Islamist groups have been fighting their campaigns. They have become fiercer, more brutal, and considerably more effective. And now, through the wonders of the internet (which is presumably how Commander Mirwais knows what’s going on in Iraq and Syria), they seem to be in greater touch with one another.
Isis captured the important Iraqi city of Mosul in June and went on to declare its caliphate across Iraq and Syria. That has enticed disaffected young Muslim extremists in Britain, Germany, Scandinavia and elsewhere to make their way there and join up. In each place, the extremists are growing in confidence; and the outside world is looking on nervously, uncertain what to do and whether it should get involved.
In Libya, Muslim extremists are starting to dominate the fighting, and slightly more moderate groups such as the one in Zintan seem to be on the defensive. In the streets of Gaza City, after the bloodshed of the past few weeks, the black flag of Islamic State is starting to appear: a potential threat to Hamas as much as to moderate Palestinians.
Even in distant Nigeria, Boko Haram has been following events in Iraq and Syria with as much interest as Commander Mirwais in Afghanistan. The government of Goodluck Jonathan has done nothing to stop the advance of Boko Haram rebels in the north-east of the country. They are as brutal in their tactics as IS. In the past few weeks, they attacked the town of Buni Yadi in Yobe State. Now they control it outright, and the federal government and the Nigerian army don’t seem able to do anything about it.
Boko Haram has started to impose its own rules on Buni Yadi: it has already murdered Christian schoolchildren there. It is being turned into a small Islamic state of its own. A few weeks ago Boko Haram took possession of Damboa and Gwoza, two towns in the neighbouring Borno State. Now, it seems, they aren’t simply staging raids such as the one on the mainly Christian town of Chibok, where they kidnapped nearly 300 girls in April; they are starting to take over and hold swaths of territory in north-eastern Nigeria.
“I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve, so strike [them] upon the necks and strike from them every fingertip.”
So says a verse from the Anfal sura, or chapter, of the Quran. Anfal is usually translated as “spoils of war”, and several British and other volunteers fighting in Syria and Iraq have taken “Ibn Anfal” as their nom de guerre, with that particular verse in mind. This has been the summer of Anfal, especially in Syria and Iraq.
According to the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, IS “is an organisation that has an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision which will eventually have to be defeated”. Dempsey is right about the vision, but you can almost hear the resignation in his voice. It’s the tone that every US administration has used in this kind of context, and every British one, too. What is the least we can do? How quickly can we get out afterwards?
For those such as Senator John McCain, the answer is easy: start dropping bombs on IS and that will sort them out in no time. It’s certainly true that IS, Boko Haram, the Taliban and the rest are a lot better at racing through unprotected villages on flatbed trucks, attacking people of the wrong persuasion and sawing off their heads, than they are at standing their ground when the drones come over.
However, as the Afghan mujahedin found when the Russians bombed them in the 1980s, it is possible after a while to train yourself to face up to drones and missiles. Bombing isn’t a strategy; it’s something that makes politicians and the writers of newspaper editorials feel better after some dreadful incident such as the murder of the American video journalist James Foley. It doesn’t help with the problem.
So how can Islamic State and the rest of them be defeated? It may not be easy, but it is abundantly clear. The reason these organisations have battened on the countries where they have established themselves is that the governments there are hapless, corrupt and ineffectual.
Think of poor old President Jonathan in Nigeria: all he wants is for Boko Haram to go away, but he hasn’t the faintest idea how to get his army to move into the north-east and sort them out. Think of Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq. He seemed mostly concerned with getting his own people into every available job when he was in power and carving out the Sunnis and the Kurds wherever possible. And now think of the political gridlock in Afghanistan, where it has taken months to sort out the results of the presidential election. Political weakness turns into economic weakness, and both together become a major security weakness; and then stopping IS or Boko Haram or the Taliban starts to seem impossible.
Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Nigeria: in one way or another they are all in danger of becoming black holes in which the nastiest and weirdest groups can thrive. The only serious answer is to turn them back into real countries once again. But that takes long-term commitment from outside interests, especially (though not exclusively) the US and Europe. It certainly can’t be achieved by firing off a few rounds of missiles.
By the time the resulting Iraqi civil war had started to fade, it was too late: Afghanistan was on fire once more. Now the British and the Americans are desperate to pull their troops out and forget about it all over again, as quickly as they can; which is precisely what Commander Mirwais and the rest of them are hoping for.
We won’t help countries threatened by extreme forms of Islamic fury by alternately bombing or invading them and then lapsing into forgetfulness. The only way is long-term concern, unrelenting pressure for good government, carefully targeted aid and a strong helping hand with counterterrorism as well as military training. We’ve had our summer of Anfal and it was pretty rough. Time is getting short to prevent an autumn and winter of Anfal as well.
John Simpson is the world affairs editor of the BBC