Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Christina Goldbaum of The New York Times are clinging to platitudes and generalities in their recent report about the threat of ISIS-K in Afghanistan. The article is, at best, a semi-official government press leak. It largely passes over Washington’s role in forging much of the crisis, while absolving the government of any current wrongdoing.
The authors arrive at the meat of the report by the fourth paragraph. "In the two months since the Taliban took control of the country, the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan… has stepped up attacks across the country, straining the new and untested government and raising alarm bells in the West about the potential resurgence of a group that could eventually pose an international threat." Here again, the ole’ safe-haven myth, appearing in the article’s lede. Like Iran’s nuclear program, ISIS-K "could gain the capability to strike international targets in a matter of six to 12 months." The authors couch the claim by saying "could," while hiding behind the veil of amorphous "Western officials" for reference, but what does that matter? The safe-haven line has been used to justify interventions for the past twenty years. It’s nothing more than a catch-all statement, invoking a threat which could exist in five days, five months, or, perhaps, five years. Indeed, propagandizing the existence of a threat is easier than proving one exists.
That’s just the start, nonetheless. The reason why the West fears "the potential resurgence" isn’t based on solid intelligence, instead, it’s based on Washington’s failure to secure good intelligence about the Taliban and their enemies, as their informant network collapsed when they left the country. Things are made more difficult, according to the authors, because Washington can’t reliably get to Afghanistan in the first place. "Limited drone flights" are flying farther distances to collect only "piecemeal information" about the Taliban and its foes. For all of this, according to Colin Kahl – a former Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security and current under secretary of defense for policy – Washington can’t estimate the effectiveness of the Taliban against ISIS-K.
To be clear, Gibbons-Neff and Goldbaum are not alone here. This line of reasoning was parroted among most media outlets, with Time taking home the gold medal in warmongering by advocating for the establishment of "prized" military bases in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to counter the supposed threat. It’s as if yellow journalism, that thing we learned about in 9th grade, is still a common practice today.
But as Gibbons-Neff and Goldbaum maintain, the basis of the threat isn’t whether or not ISIS-K is a large-scale insurgency – it’s about Washington’s woes. It doesn’t matter that ISIS-K, at present and historically, doesn’t possess public support and isn’t sufficiently armed to fight against a newly equipped Taliban military force. That doesn’t prevent the writers from citing a report from ExTrac, a private intelligence firm, which concluded that at least 54 attacks, including bombings, assassinations, and ambushes, occurred between mid September and late October. "It amounts to one of the most active and deadly periods for the Islamic State in Afghanistan."
Since the Americans and NATO left in late August, ISIS-K has stepped up its activity outside of its usual regional presence in the Nangarhar Province, a territory in eastern Afghanistan, where it targeted mostly Taliban fighters and Afghan Shiites minorities. The first major attack occurred in August during the American withdrawal outside of the Kabul airport. In September, ISIS-K attacked Taliban strongholds in Jalalabad, killing or injuring over 35 Taliban fighters, in addition to using improvised explosives in Kabul. Multiple attacks on Shiite mosques have killed dozens, and the group staged attacks on a military hospital in the capital city in October, killing another 25 people. The threat of ISIS-K surely exists; to what extent, however, is unknown. Is it a "growing insurgency"? That’s hard to tell.
In the 10th paragraph, Gibbons-Neff and Goldbaum add to their disillusions. The Taliban, "who are fighting the war on their own terms, with tactics and strategies that look far more localized than a government campaign against a terrorist organization," are refusing help from governments against which they just got done fighting. Is it that the Taliban are refusing help, or is it that Washington prefers to control the terms of conduct?
The Taliban have remained disinterested in treating ISIS-K as an international terror threat. As a political decision with both national and international projections, their main wish is for the West to stop interfering in their business. Taliban leaders haven’t yet endorsed Washington’s ‘over-the-horizon’ military and intelligence missions in Afghanistan, and they aren’t expected to. The Kabul government has only said that Washington’s operations are in violation of international law.
Gibbons-Neff and Goldbaum, despite some folly, provide a great example of the extent to which corporate press agents will deceive their readers. Though some background is provided, the authors exclude key details about how ISIS-K came to be, and why the Taliban might encounter difficulties fighting them in the future.
The authors dedicate a few paragraphs addressing the roots and history of ISIS-K, detailing their ethnic and religious origins. They leave out the fact that the group’s existence is a consequence of the US-Pakastani war in Pakistan’s tribal areas during the Obama administration. Washington aided ISIS-K fighters against Pakistan forces – an American ally – then turned ISIS-K against the Afghan Taliban during the years when Washington’s wars were most omnipresent. After that backfired and the group became a Islamic State-affiliate, a reality which Goldbaum and Gibbons-Neff acknowledge, Washington switched sides; it started helping the Taliban fight ISIS-K by providing them air support. It might be fruitful to know this, for the reader’s sake.
What’s more egregious is the lack of detail given to Washington’s ongoing effort to destabilize the Afghan economy, risking the lives of millions, to establish and maintain leverage over the Taliban regime. This circumstance is explained simply as a "worsening economic situation," which is also "driving… Islamic State’s recruitment."
Forget about the $10 billion in assets and funds frozen by the United States and other Western governments, in addition to the billions of dollars in foreign aid frozen by the International Monetary Fund. The government of Afghanistan is authorized to control those funds, but the United States needs its bargaining chips. Yes, such a policy has only proven to cause more political disorder and humanitarian suffering, but the real problem is with intelligence gathering. It is not the policy of the United States to alleviate the plight of war-ridden refugees. Instead the government takes from the taxpayer to preserve its strategic hegemony thousands of miles away.
During the lead up to the Afghanistan War and Iraq War II, along with the Arab Spring, the Syrian Civil War, Libya, Somalia, and all the others, when the intelligence said one thing about the war and the truth was something else, much of the media played a vital role in popularizing and defending the state’s most outlandish claims; and with its claims came its abuses. As with every myth propagated about America’s war regime, the details are often buried behind a veil of propaganda. To treat ISIS-K as if it’s a full-scale insurgency, like the one the Afghan Taliban launched against the United States or the insurgency launched by the bin-Ladenites in Iraq and Syria under the flag of ISIS, which the Obama administration also caused, is a load of bunk.
There is a caveat to all of this. If Afghanistan’s economy collapses, which isn’t a far-fetched conclusion, ISIS-K could surely become a legitimate threat. At that point, it wouldn’t matter that the United States helped cause the disaster. The New York Times got it right, in a way.
Brett Kershaw is a young independent writer, historian, and creator of the NewPublicForum.com – a site created to help foster ideological dialogue, preserve heterodox views and provide an alternative to the corporate press.