How Islamic State exported its novel brand of horror to long-troubled Afghanistan

“If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it’s a duck,” a diplomat told me in Kabul. “Isil are here.”

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The sounds of a long war echoed softly along the valleys like the familiar creak of an old man’s bones. Not even the buzz of an overhead drone seemed especially new. Drones have flown over the Spin Ghar mountain range ever since Osama Bin Laden and his entourage escaped through Tora Bora in 2001 and, as I listened, the drone’s monotonous hum sat in easy entanglement with the thump of sporadic mortar fire, the braying of a donkey, the duh-duh-duh of a DShK heavy machine-gun and the delighted whoops of urchins playing in one of the front-line villages below me. War in Afghanistan is 36 years old and with peace unknown to most Afghans, life goes on within and around the conflict.

Yet if all looked and sounded much the same, there was something new among those hills as they massed, rank on green-forested rank, above the dun lowlands of Achin District, rising finally to the snow-capped mountain peaks that marked the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. For in the shadows of those valleys a novel brand of horror had recently arrived.

Islamic State – known variously as Da’esh, Isis and Isil – had come to Afghanistan, supplanting the Taliban in several districts on the Afghan side of the border in Nangarhar Province, entrenching itself among the local population and suppressing opposition with the same savagery as in Syria and Iraq. Since the summer, more than 17,000 families have fled this newest chapter of violence in Afghanistan’s conflict, displaced to makeshift camps around Jalalabad.

“They acted to terrify us and they succeeded,” said Haji Lal Pur, an Afghan farmer who survived captivity in an improvised Islamic State prison. He told me how he and his fellow prisoners, held in a cave, had their manacles released only so that they could be led outside, where they were forced to watch the beheadings of men selected from among them and the torture of others who were lowered on ropes headfirst into barrels of water. Other Afghans gave me detailed eyewitness accounts of seeing the heads of policemen and Taliban members hanging on display from Da’esh’s vehicle-mounted machine-guns, or piled in cooking pots beside the gates of jails.

The advent of Islamic State’s branch in Afghanistan, known as Wilayat Khurasan, comes amid the bloodiest era of the war on record since the Taliban were overthrown in 2001. Just a year after Nato’s International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) mission handed responsibility for the country’s safety over to Afghan troops, soldiers and policemen are dying across the nation at a rate of 500 a month.

Despite battlefield successes in Kunduz and Helmand, the Taliban are fractured in a way that seems to accelerate the violence rather than diminish it. The group is embroiled in an internal fight over leadership following the announcement in July of Mullah Omar’s death and appears to be further fragmented by the prospect of renewed negotiations with the Afghan government.

This hothouse of blood and discord has provided the perfect conditions for Da’esh to germinate, allowing it to cream off disaffected Taliban members to swell its own ranks. To begin with, few Afghans noticed the true nature of the strangers in their midst. The first newcomers, Orakzai tribesmen from Pakistan, began arriving last autumn with their families, asking Afghans for shelter among the mountain villages in Nangarhar’s southern districts, seeking sanctuary from the ongoing Pakistani military operations in the tribal areas.

“They prayed differently and had different practices to us but they were friendly and left us alone,” Haji Lal Pur said.

In the spring, however, a new group arrived. Made up of former members of the Pakistani Taliban, it claimed allegiance to Islamic State. Heavily armed and well equipped, it was joined by the Orakzai who were already there and routed the Afghan Taliban in districts abutting Nangarhar’s border with Pakistan. Then the group pushed down into the lowlands, where it clashed with police and troops.

The Afghan government was slow to respond, unsure about what it was dealing with. At first, foreign diplomats shared those doubts. Yet, as the summer progressed and the new arrivals secured their territory, issuing Islamic State edicts and taking control of local mosques, any remaining suspicions concerning the group’s true identity disappeared. “If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it’s a duck,” a diplomat told me in Kabul. “Isil are here.”

In July, US commanders in Afghanistan upgraded their assessment of Islamic State’s evolution in the country from “nascent” to “emergent”. In September, a report published by the United Nations noted that Wilayat Khurasan, formed around a core of 70 fighters who had arrived from Syria and Iraq, was recruiting in 25 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.

The more optimistic observers point to the many differences between Afghanistan’s war and the conflict in Syria and Iraq, concluding that Islamic State will struggle to gain dominance in a land lacking the ­sectarian hatreds of the Middle East and one in which existing Taliban groups are already maturely rooted among local communities. Nevertheless, the reported wounding on 2 December of the Taliban’s new leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, in a shooting with a rival Taliban group that had apparently pledged allegiance to Islamic State, bodes ill both for the government in Kabul and for the Taliban.

“We did not much like the Taliban in my village,” Haji Lal Pur said. “But at least they were Afghans and we understood each other. But now that Da’esh have come, we miss the Taliban.”

Anthony Loyd is a war correspondent for the Times

This article appears in the 17 December 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special