The emergence of militants in Afghanistan claiming allegiance to Islamic State could disrupt White House plans to remove the remaining U.S. troops in that country by the end of next year.
Islamic State has provided new ammunition to Pentagon and Afghan officials seeking to persuade the White House to reverse its decision to pull out U.S. troops. Their argument, in effect, is that Islamic State could grow and the same security collapse that occurred in Iraq could happen in Afghanistan if the U.S. removes its troops as planned.
Gen. John Campbell, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said Sunday that President Obama's pledge to withdraw most of the 9,800 troops in Afghanistan by the end of 2016 was made before the appearance of Islamic State. He said the militant group has contributed to a worsening overall security situation in the country this year.
Neither Islamic State nor the far more powerful Taliban insurgency is a threat to take over Afghanistan next year, Campbell told a small group of reporters in Kabul, the Afghan capital. But he said, "If we leave and there's no money coming in, years later could that happen? Yeah, maybe."
Those warnings were echoed by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in a meeting with Campbell and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who made a one-day visit to Afghanistan. The Afghan president warned directly about the threat posed by Islamic State and called for long-term military collaboration with the U.S. to prevent the group from taking root in South Asia, officials said
Islamic State is a small but growing threat in Afghanistan, Campbell said, mainly composed of former Taliban fighters, including some from Pakistan, who split off and "rebranded" themselves after seeing the group's success in Iraq and Syria.
The group is active in three Afghan provinces in the south and east — Helmand, Faryab and Nangarhar, he said, adding that he could not estimate its size.
Some have joined the group after being driven out of Pakistan by its security forces or disaffected former Taliban insurgents angry about that group's decision to hold talks on a potential peace deal with Ghani's government.
Taliban and Islamic State militants have been fighting each other in some cases, he said.
"We used to call it nascent," Campbell told a small group of reporters Sunday, referring to Islamic State's presence in Afghanistan. "Now we say it's probably operationally emergent."
Campbell emphasized that he had not finalized recommendations to the Pentagon and White House about the pace of the troop pullout. But he said the threat from Islamic State would factor into his recommendations, due to the White House this fall.
Ghani has already drawn on his warm relationship with President Obama to persuade the White House to delay the drawdown plan once. The U.S. troop level was originally planned to drop to 5,500 by the end of this year, but Obama announced in March after a meeting with Ghani that he would allow 9,800 soldiers to remain through December to continue training Afghan troops and to carry out counter-terrorism operations.
Ghani has lobbied the White House consistently since taking office this year to keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan after 2016. After next year, the White House has said only a few hundred troops will remain, working out of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
White House officials have shown no signs that they are willing to back away from the 2016 deadline. Nor is it clear that they share Ghani's assessment about the threat from Islamic State in Afghanistan.
But Ghani is urging U.S. officials to rethink their future military relationship with Afghanistan because of the threat from Islamic State. In his meeting Sunday, he suggested the U.S. and its allies could use Afghanistan as a counter-terrorism base to oppose the rise of Islamic State throughout South Asia, Dempsey said.
Ghani has held two videoconferences with Obama to talk about the threat posed by Islamic State and is likely to have another soon, Campbell said.
"He said, 'I know, President Obama, the promises you made to the American people [about leaving Afghanistan], and I don't want to violate that,'" Campbell quoted Ghani as saying. "'But conditions here have changed. Let me make sure you understand how I see this.'"
Dempsey said he agreed that the U.S. needed to have a transnational strategy against Islamic State and said he would raise Ghani's idea that Afghanistan could serve as a hub from which the U.S., its allies and Afghanistan itself could work to prevent Islamic State from gaining followers in South Asia the way it has in the Middle East.
Dempsey, who has announced he is stepping down as chairman in September, stopped short of calling for U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan after next year, saying there needed to be discussions with the White House.
Campbell suggested that one scenario was for the U.S. to contribute troops to a NATO-led operation after 2016 that would continue training Afghan security forces.
As recently as 2011, the U.S. had about 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. The 9,800 that remain are confined largely to conducting training and carrying out airstrikes. Several thousand special operations troops continue to conduct counter-terrorism operations within Afghanistan, a mission that some senior officers favor continuing.
"As you look at the world, I think it probably would benefit us to have a regional [counter-terrorism] presence," Campbell said.
Taliban insurgents now operate far more freely in the south and east. They have mounted a string of high-profile assaults on guest houses and other undefended targets in Kabul and regained ground in places such as Helmand province in the south, where they once had been largely defeated.
The Afghan army and police have lost 4,100 men in combat this year and 7,800 have been wounded, a 60% increase in casualties over last year, according to figures provided by the U.S. Though many units continue to fight the Taliban, the Afghan security forces continue to be plagued by problems with equipment, logistics and tactics, said Brig. Gen. Al Shoffner, the public affairs chief for the U.S. command in Kabul.
Many of the Afghan personnel see their main duty as manning checkpoints, rather than conducting offensive operations against the insurgency. The Afghan air force operates some attack helicopters and other aircraft, but it remains years away from being able to stand on its own, U.S. officials say.
Ghani highlighted those shortcomings in his meetings Sunday, Dempsey said, making a special appeal for U.S. help in buying new planes to provide air support to Afghan ground units — a request that Dempsey said he would take back to the White House.
FOR THE RECORD
5:59 p.m.: A previous version of this report incorrectly said Ghani asked for U.S. warplanes to provide more air attacks to help Afghan troops. He asked for help in buying planes.