THE PECH VALLEY, Afghanistan — A valley of wood workshops and green wheat fields, torn apart by violence during two decades of war in eastern Afghanistan, is now strangely quiet — the result of an uneasy truce between the Taliban and the local Afghan government, forged by a mutual enemy.
The two sides worked practically side by side to oust the Islamic State from Kunar Province’s Pech Valley — a strip of mountains and earth that saw fierce fighting at the height of the American-led war. The Islamic State had taken root there before Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, claimed it was “obliterated” in late 2019.
Now the Islamic State attacks are rare and come only at night, residents say, by fighters from areas outside of Taliban and government control. Yet while smaller and more amorphous after its military defeat, the terror group still poses a threat to the region as it recruits both in cities and the countryside, waiting to take advantage of whatever might follow in the war’s next iteration.
The coming months could signal a shift in the group’s prominence, should the Taliban agree to stop fighting the Afghan government on a national scale and disenfranchised fighters — who have spent much of their lives at war — seek a new group with whom to ally in return for a steady paycheck.
U.S. intelligence and military officials see the Islamic State in Afghanistan as a branch of an international terrorist group with global aspirations, and the tentative May 1 withdrawal date of all American forces could hinder their ability to monitor and combat its activities.
“The Islamic State is just looking for a foothold,” said Wahid Talash, a resident whose house overlooks the Pech River. “The potential is always there.”
It was 2015 when the terror group was officially established in Afghanistan’s east by former members of the Pakistani Taliban. The group’s ideology took hold partly because many villages, especially in Kunar, are inhabited by Salafi Muslims, the same branch of Sunni Islam as the Islamic State. A minority among the Taliban, who mostly follow the Hanafi school, Salafi fighters were eager to join the new terror group.
In the years that followed, military campaigns eventually retook what territory the Islamic State had captured. At times, longtime foes worked together to expunge the group from the country: Afghan government forces ferried Taliban fighters from one end of the valley to the other and U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State helped Taliban fighters maneuver below, according to “The Hardest Place,” a recently published book on the region by Wesley Morgan, a journalist. By early last year, much of the Islamic State was wiped out.
What followed was an uneasy peace between the local Afghan government and the Taliban, the result of an unofficial cease-fire deal in 2019 — outlined in a recent report from the Afghan Analysts Network — that offered residents of the Pech a precarious return to normalcy.
Some Islamic State fighters who weren’t imprisoned instead reached out to the government and committed to lay down their arms. In return, they were promised a monthly stipend of around $100 and handed a signed letter from the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, noting they had “joined the peace process.”
But residents in the valley are concerned that the ongoing peace talks in Doha, Qatar between the government and the Taliban may upend the current equilibrium.
“We think the Islamic State will be a big problem for the province and the country in the future, after the Taliban join the peace process, as those Taliban who are not happy with it will join them,” said Rasul Mohammad Khaksar, the head of the youth council in Watapur district, a slice of homes alongside the Pech River. “This is how it has always been in Afghanistan, one insurgency group replaces another.”
Alternatively, if the peace negotiations fail, the Taliban could once again start fighting the Afghan security forces.
The Afghan government controls the valley’s main road, which is littered with checkpoints and outposts that once belonged to the U.S. military. In the hills beyond are the Taliban. But both sides, residents say, have taken a vested interest in policing their territory, looking for outsiders trying to recruit for the Islamic State.
“People here get services from the government, but pray for the Taliban,” Mr. Talash said, pointing south, in the direction of the mouth of the Korengal Valley, a symbol of the American military’s failures in Afghanistan’s east that is now controlled by the Taliban. But both sides “are not allowing people they don’t know into their territory.”
For now, the policing effort has largely worked, as has the reintegration of former Islamic State members back into local society. But the latter effort shows signs of fracturing.
High poverty levels and the absence of government jobs and aid projects have pushed some residents, especially former insurgent fighters, toward rearming or joining the Islamic State.
Three former members of the Islamic State said the support promised by the government never materialized after they had turned in their weapons.
“The Kunar valley is much safer and calmer, compared to the time when we were part of insurgency, but our situation is not good,” said Sayid Khan Mumtaz, who had been fighting, in some capacity, since the U.S. invasion in 2001. Mr. Mumtaz defected to the Islamic State from the Taliban after learning of Pakistan’s outsize influence over the latter group.
Tahir Walid, who had fought alongside Mr. Mumtaz, said that facing poverty, he was going to rejoin the Islamic State or Lashkar-e Taiba, a militant group active in Kashmir that often works with the Taliban.
Either group “will pay enough so that I can rebuild my house and remake my life,” Mr. Walid said.
In rural areas, the Islamic State’s recruiting pool of disenfranchised fighters has strong potential to grow if the Taliban make peace with the Afghan government.
But in Jalalabad and other cities, the Islamic State is drawing poor and sometimes educated radicalized urbanites to fill their ranks. The group is known for paying higher salaries than the Taliban and the government, though since losing territory, its coffers — once filled by Kunar’s local timber trade, external funds, taxation and extortion — have shrunk.
In Jalalabad, a two-hour drive southwest from Kunar’s capital, Asadabad, there are dozens of three- or four-person Islamic State cells that work independently, so if one cell is arrested, its members are unable to disclose the presence of others, according to an Afghan intelligence official. A similar network has long been active in Kabul.
A United Nations report released in February estimated the size of the Islamic State in Afghanistan to be between 1,000 and 2,200 fighters.
“When I came here, I didn’t think there would be a threat of the Islamic State,” said Mohammad Ali, a Shiite Muslim from the Hazara ethnic group who moved two months ago to work in a plaster factory on the outskirts of Jalalabad. His face covered in white dust, Mr. Ali described the deaths of seven Hazara workers who were killed in a nearby factory earlier this month.
Local officials said the Islamic State was responsible. The targets of its attacks are often Afghanistan’s Shiite minorities, but since losing territory, the group has changed its tactics to mirror those of the Taliban: fewer large-scale bombings and more smaller but targeted assaults. Sometimes, however, they are just as deadly. A siege in November at Kabul University left more than 20 dead.
Just a day before the factory workers were killed, three female media workers, all from the same television network, were gunned down in Jalalabad. The Islamic State claimed responsibility.
Mr. Ali fled the city, as did dozens of other factory workers. Local government officials closed some factories, leaving the building where the seven Hazaras were killed nearly untouched since the attack.
The dead employees’ shoes had been left behind. Blood stains — despite a recent gust of rain — remained soaked into the churned white rock.
Fahim Abed contributed reporting.