New photos released by the Islamic State this week has underlined a scary fact: that the terrorist group is churning out scores of junior jihadists thanks to intensive training camps.
The images uncovered by Vocative reportedly show the extremist group’s first graduating class of soldiers at its Afghanistan training camp, highlighting that the group’s ambitions extend far beyond the Middle East and have moved into the increasingly unstable country.
About 24 armed men were photographed doing various drills and exercises, including those with what appears to be anti-aircraft machineguns.
In January, Islamic State stated that it intended to expand its reach into Afghanistan and has since made its presence felt. In April it claimed responsibility for a suicide attack that killed at least 35 people in Jalalabad, the capital of eastern Nangarhar province.
While nowhere near as powerful as the Taliban, Islamic State’s push into the region is concerning for US and NATO forces.
There are fears it may also spark brutal competition with the Taliban, further destabilizing the region and complicating efforts to end a 14-year war, which has now become America’s longest conflict.
US President Barack Obama promised to end America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but announced last week that he would delay the US pullout from Afghanistan. He originally planned to withdraw all but a small US force before leaving office in January 2017, but will instead keep the current force of 9,800 through most of 2016.
His decision follows the brief takeover of the strategic northern city of Kunduz by the Taliban last month, which underscored concerns about the capabilities of Afghanistan’s security forces.
Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi told AP that Afghanistan was facing “security problems” in at least nine districts, without elaborating.
This week a A US F-16 was struck by enemy fire in eastern Afghanistan in a rare instance of an advanced fighter jet coming under a Taliban-claimed attack.
The attack took place in the Sayid Karam district of eastern Paktia province, much of which is under control of the Taliban.
The multi-million dollar jet sustained significant damage, forcing it to jettison its fuel tanks and munitions before returning to base, officials told AFP.
The Taliban have shot down several military helicopters using small-arms fire, but never an F-16 — an advanced jet capable of supersonic speeds and reaching heights of 50,000 feet, which have been deployed in Afghanistan since the beginning of the US-led military in 2001.
The Afghan government is also facing opposition in the remote northwestern regions of the country, and is turning to a notorious former war lord to help it regain the territory.
Warlords such as First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum are assuming a larger role in the battle against the Taliban as troops have struggled to take on the insurgents without the aid of U.S. and NATO combat troops.
Dostum has no formal position in the military, but has a “bodyguard” of 640 men.
Dostum’s spokesman, Sultan Faizy, said he would assess the situation in Ghormach district, in the Faryab province, and submit recommendations to President Ashraf Ghani and the National Security Council. He will then implement their decision, only leading men into battle with their permission, the spokesman said.
Dostum, a prominent mujahedeen commander who fought the Soviets in the 1980s and took part in the civil war that erupted after their withdrawal, is expected to lead a combined force of army, police and his own militiamen. Government reinforcements are already being dispatched to Faryab.
If he gets the green light from Ghani and the NSC, it will be Dostum’s second time this year leading men into Faryab to take on the Taliban.
In August he donned full military uniform and joined troops in pushing the Taliban out of districts around the provincial capital Maymana.
Acting Defence Minister Masoom Stankzai has denied the government is falling back on private militias. In an interview with The Associated Press on Monday, he said Dostum and others are able to mobilize armed men they had previously been associated with, but did not have private armies.
“It is a kind of perception that they have their own army. They say that if the government wants them to mobilize people and bring them in to really strengthen the security forces, they will help and mobilize and not do anything without proper military planning,” Stanekzai said.
“We don’t want to create a parallel system in the country, that is dangerous and that is not in the interests of the country.”
Afghan troops were meanwhile battling the Taliban in three districts in the southern Helmand province, on the other side of the country, Sediqqi said.
Officials said the insurgents had fought their way to within 10km of the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah.
Mohammad Hashim Alokozai, a politician from Helmand province, said the Taliban had launched attacks on the outskirts of Lashkar Gah and seized the Babaji area north of the city.
“A heavy battle is going on around the city,” Alokozai said. He said the local Helmand government was downplaying the severity of the attack, which he said had killed or wounded dozens of security forces.
“I warn the government, if the Taliban overrun Lashkar Gah it will not be as easy to take it back as it was in Kunduz,” he said.