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ISIS preys on unemployed Afghans to strengthen fighting force

Eltaf Najafizada, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

KABUL, Afghanistan -- As unemployment worsens in strife-torn Afghanistan, the Islamic State has arrived to help the jobless with a lucrative new profession: terrorist.

The insurgent group has made significant headway in Afghanistan and is recruiting local villagers, as well as its enemy -- the Taliban -- to paid jobs in order to expand its influence across the north, according to local Afghan officials.

Hundreds of local villagers from remote areas of the Faryab and Jawzjan provinces and several Taliban commanders with more than 300 fighters have pledged allegiance to ISIS in the past six months, Mohammad Sami Khairkhowah, the head of provincial council of Faryab said by phone. They are paid above $500 monthly, thrice the wage of a government soldier, he said.

Several Afghan lawmakers confirmed the issue and expressed deep frustration over government's inability to stop it. The group is recruiting people "openly and publicly" in the region, Abdul Rauf Ibrahimi, the speaker of lower house of parliament, told lawmakers in a June session.

The revelations come as President Donald Trump struggles to define an Afghanistan policy and weighs an increase in troop levels in Afghanistan. U.S. generals have recommended adding as many as 5,000 troops to about 8,400 already there to train and assist Afghan forces. Defense Secretary James Mattis told American lawmakers in June the U.S. is not winning the 16-year-long war.

The recruitment process is led by Qari Hekmatullah, who has been identified by the Afghan government as the regional leader of the Islamic State Khorasan Province, or ISKP. He operates in the deserts of Dahst-e-Laili and mountains of Darzab district in Jawzjan province, which share a border with Faryab, Khairkhowah said.

"ISKP's aim is to establish a presence in the increasingly volatile north of Afghanistan and highlights the resilience of a group, which has recently lost leaders, fighters and territory," said Viraj Solanki, a research analyst for South Asia at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, via email. The group's "appeal and brand is attractive for fighters, and the financial gains are also attractive for local villagers."

Their recruitment drive, along with the growing Taliban presence in the region "multiplies the challenges" for President Ashraf Ghani, Solanki said, and will determine "the nature of future U.S. policy towards Afghanistan."

The insurgents lost ground in their first-established foothold in the eastern Nangarhar province and in the south after operations by Afghan and U.S. forces. A U.S. airstrike killed the group's third leader Abu Sayed as well as his four senior advisers, U.S. military officials in Kabul said on July 31. And in April, the U.S. dropped its largest non-nuclear bomb on Islamic State hideouts in Nangarhar, killing as many as 100.

However it's feared the group may expand further into the country's north. For the first time since their emergence in 2014, it gained control of the Darzab district in June. Among the former Taliban commanders who switched allegiance to the Islamic State are Maulavi Assadullah, Mullah Sufi Qayum and Mullah Nemat Mufti, who brought with him 200 armed fighters.

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