JALALABAD, AFGHANISTAN // A rope now runs across the entrance to a valley in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar, blocking access to a bridge that was built as part of US-led efforts to win local hearts and minds.
Standing at the makeshift checkpoint in Achin district this autumn, questioning anyone who wants to pass, are ISIL fighters who have established control over much of the surrounding area.
The man who described this scene was too scared to give his name, despite escaping to the relative safety of the provincial capital, Jalalabad.
But like other people who provided similar accounts to The National, he warned that the movement formally named the Islamic State in Khorasan is now firmly entrenched in the mountains, villages and woodland he once called home.
“They are stronger than the Taliban,” said the man in his mid-30s. “They are stronger than the government.”
For more than a year there has been constant speculation about the capabilities of ISIL in Afghanistan, with officials in Kabul often appearing eager to play up the threat in an attempt to reignite waning international interest in the war.
A recent UN report added to the debate when it claimed ISIL was present in 25 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.
One place where the problem is undoubtedly real is Nangarhar, which is situated just a few hours drive to the east of Kabul. ISIL is now active in several districts locally and has taken control of large areas of territory.
This gives its fighters easy access to and from Pakistan and could potentially allow them to reach far deeper into Afghanistan.
Exactly what ISIL’s growing presence ultimately means for the wider war and for ordinary men and women already living under its rule is still unclear. But people in Nangarhar told The National a powerful and mysterious new force has emerged on the scene.
Achin lies to the south of Jalalabad and the problems there began when the Taliban tried to prevent a spate of kidnappings carried out by fighters allied to ISIL in the neighbouring district of Bati Kot.
Heavy clashes erupted, with some Taliban in Achin eventually switching sides and the district falling to ISIL after Ramadan.
The resident who described the makeshift checkpoint at the bridge in the Mohmand Valley is a member of the Haider Khel branch of the Shinwari tribe.
He told The National that two or three years ago ethnic Pashtun insurgents from the Pakistan side of the border were living among the local people as members of the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban.
Now there “might be a thousand men” claiming allegiance to ISIL. These included Pashtuns from neighbouring Kunar province, ethnic Tajiks from the northern provinces of Takhar and Badakhshan, and men of oriental or Central Asia appearance who are unusually short in height.
He described them as being “very well organised” and wearing a mixture of traditional clothes and military uniforms. He said they invariably have long hair and are equipped with weapons including DShK heavy machine guns and mortars.
Furthermore, he said ISIL has started issuing ID cards to the heads of local families costing the equivalent of US$78 each (Dh287). Coloured white and made of plastic, the cards effectively act as residency permits.
Written on them is ‘Khorasan’ — in reference to a region from the early years of Islam that included Afghanistan — the holder’s name, village and the number of the people in his family.
Although some of these claims are impossible to independently verify, ISIL has been quick to release propaganda from Nangarhar including photos of its fighters and videos of public executions.
Mohammed Nasir Kamawal, a provincial councillor, told The National ISIL controls the districts of Achin, Nazyan, Bati Kot, Chaparhar and part of Rodat.
Describing the group as “brutal”, he said it began by fighting the Taliban, then fought “doctors, engineers and local ordinary people”.
Earlier this week, the Afghan intelligence service announced that three members of ISIL’s shadow government in Bati Kot had turned themselves in having become disillusioned with the movement.
All of this has led Afghans to fear that a new phase in the conflict is starting, with many speculating that ISIL’s presence in the country is simply another sign that outside powers are waging an increasingly murky proxy war on their soil.
One persistent rumour is that this is all part of a US plot to keep thousands of troops in Afghanistan beyond 2016. Others worry Moscow may also try to get militarily involved following recent comments by several Russian officials warning that extremists are gaining strength in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, the people of Achin are caught in the middle of the unrest. Haji Nurajan Shinwari was a commander in the district of a kind of state-backed militia known as the Local Police.
He had 100 men under his leadership until he fled to Jalalabad, claiming the government barely supported his forces when they were under attack.
ISIL operates “like a professional army” and is stronger militarily than the Taliban and the government, he said. He added that their fighters move around openly in groups of 20 to 30 men, using horses and regular cars for transport.
He expressed some sympathy for them and denounced as “propaganda” widespread claims that widows have been forced to mark their houses with a kind of flag to denote they are available for marriage.
However, Mr Shinwari was among those who confirmed that ISIL fighters have destroyed local shrines in Achin. In some cases, The National was told that bones have even been dug up and reburied in shallow graves in keeping with strict Salafi custom.