The main alleged recruiter of Central Asian nationals into the ranks of the Islamic State group has been been killed in a US missile strike in Afghanistan, NATO said in a press release on April 9.
The military alliance said Qari Hikmatullah, who it described as an Uzbek native, was killed on April 5 along with his bodyguard in an area of Faryab province not far from the border with Turkmenistan.
NATO describes Hikmatullah as a senior commander in the IS-K, the name given to the Afghanistan contingent of the militant group, and a facilitator for fighters traveling into northern areas of the country.
“IS-K in Jowzjan province is the main conduit for external support and foreign fighters from Central Asian states into Afghanistan. Hikmatullah was the key leader for those operations,” the statement said.
It did not state whether there were any noncombatant casualties as a result of the airstrike, although substantial numbers of civilian deaths have been caused in Afghanistan by NATO missions over the years.
Another Uzbek native Mawlavi Habibul Rahman has been named as successor to Hikmatullah, whose career, according to NATO, had seen him move through various organizations, from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan to the Taliban and then to Islamic State.
Alliance forces claim to have degraded the ranks of the IS-K to such an extent, however, that fully replacing Hikmatullah will provide challenging.
“[Afghan Special Security Forces] and US counterterrorism forces killed Hikmatullah and they will kill any successors,” said General John Nicholson, the head of US forces in Afghanistan. "IS-K will be eliminated.”
While the NATO-led alliance claims to be making strides forward in constraining Islamic State capacity in Afghanistan, Russia has taken a far more skeptical stance, routinely sounding the alarm about a purported proliferation of training camps.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov read faithfully from the script while meeting in Moscow with his Tajik counterpart, Sirodjidin Aslov, on April 9.
“In Afghanistan, predominantly in the northern areas, there is an increase in the activity of Islamic State militants. And there is no reduction, but rather we are seeing record volumes, in narcotics trafficking, which directly supports the durability of terrorism and extremism,” Lavrov said.
The deputy director of Russia’s Federal Security, Sergei Smirnov, last week said at a security conference in Tashkent, citing sources in Tajik intelligence, that around 8,000 fighters have relocated from Syria to Afghanistan. These militants, claims Smirnov, have got into Afghanistan through Iran and Turkey.
“This is seen by [security bodies] of almost all our countries,” said Smirnov.
Russia is currently going through a relatively reasonable patch with both Iran and Turkey, so it is never quite clear how it is that while its security services are able to minutely monitor the movement of militants, there is never any suggestion of actually somehow stemming this free flow of hardened fighters. A sneaking suspicion arises that the Kremlin may be playing fast and loose with the facts.
Not that the United States is above fiddling or fudging the numbers when convenient. As more than one reporter has enjoyed pointing out, in April 2017, the US military claimed that it had whittled down the number of Islamic State fighters to 700 and contained them to three districts of Afghanistan. But Nicholson, the US commander in Afghanistan, then told reporters in November that 1,600 Islamic State fighters had been “removed from the battlefield” in the country since March.
At his meeting with Aslov, Lavrov reprised another long-favored Russian tune, fulminating about the “unacceptability of attempts by certain non-regional players to use this very complicated situation in [Afghanistan] to achieve their narrow, self-serving goals and to advance unilateral agendas that have nothing to do with the region's interests.”
This kind of language is Moscow’s now-routine way of nodding in the direction of what remains — in the absence of any plausible (or even implausible) evidence — the conspiracy theory about how the United States and its allies are secretly actually supporting the Islamic State in Afghanistan, not fighting it. The ultimate goal of such crude messaging is to sow doubts among the leaderships of Afghanistan’s neighbors about the wisdom of military cooperation with the United States.
Nicholson scored a bit of an own-goal on this friend-making front last month by telling the BBC that he believed that Tajikistan is conniving with Russia to supply arms to the Taliban.
Tajikistan naturally huffed and puffed a little, but the security cooperation with the US, which largely focuses on training elite forces, border security and combating drug trafficking, is all but likely to remain unaffected for the foreseeable future.