Afghanistan confronts a new threat from IS

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Media captionAshraf Ghani: "This could be a point of no return for Daesh"

Nine Afghan men are blindfolded, marched out of their village and made to sit on a row of bombs buried in a field. Then they are blown up.

Five villagers are decapitated, their severed heads displayed on a dirt road in eastern Afghanistan for all to see.

In a country which has witnessed decades of devastating war, the so-called Islamic State is plumbing new depths of depravity.

A BBC team which visited eastern Nangarhar province reports that IS's armed men number in the hundreds, not thousands. But they are fighting under its black flag and vowing to drag Afghanistan into a global jihad and a battle to a brutal end.

The group launched two attacks this month in the eastern provincial capital Jalalabad, its first deadly suicide bombings inside an Afghan city.

"They have now confronted the wrong people," Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani tells the BBC. "We will bury Daesh," he vows, using the Arabic term for the extremist group whose reach extends far beyond the swathes of territory it controls in Iraq and Syria.

"Daesh has alienated Afghans to a remarkable degree," he explains.

On the phone to IS commander – in Afghanistan

But there's a rare warning from a president usually known for a confident certainty about his country's prospects: "There is the will, but of course we are vulnerable," he admits when we meet at the World Economic Forum in the Swiss ski resort of Davos - a long way from life lived on the edge in Afghanistan.

"There is no denial that we are dealing with significant risks," he says. "And hence the need for action on the national, regional, and international level."

Breaking the ring of steel

The threat posed by IS was recently described by a senior US commander as "operationally emergent." Other observers see the group's still limited presence as having more to do with grassroots than global politics.

"If you diagnose it only as an IS threat you overlook crucial local problems that need urgent attention," says journalist and author Bette Dam, who is writing a biography of the late Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

At a time when the Taliban is dangerously divided, the IS franchise is waiting in the wings to lure the disaffected into its ranks. But it's the Taliban, focused on war within Afghanistan rather than a global caliphate, that still exacts the most painful price and exerts the greatest pressure.

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Media captionAuthorities struggle to cope with threats from the Taliban and IS

Our interview with President Ghani takes place just days after another blistering Taliban attack in the heart of Kabul. This time a suicide bombing that killed seven young Afghans working for the popular Tolo TV news and entertainment network.

The deliberate strike on a company bus was the work of Taliban fighters who demonstrate, time and again, their will and wherewithal to penetrate the so-called "ring of steel" around the capital.

"Dark days," says Saad Mohseni, an Afghan friend who established Tolo TV. "Hopefully we'll come out of it stronger."

But what will stop Afghans fighting for IS launching their own attacks in Kabul, I ask President Ghani. Afghanistan's security forces "manage to regain the initiative" after every threat, he says.

Reconcilable differences

The multiplying security threats are fuelling new efforts to restart peace talks with the Taliban, which collapsed last year after tentative steps forward.

"We all understand that February and March are crucial to open a new chapter," President Ghani says. If not, he warns, "in April there will be intensification of conflict and it would have consequences for others".

The United States and China are exerting their combined diplomatic weight to try to get Pakistan and Afghanistan to work more closely together to end a devastating conflict which straddles the border.

Sources say plans are underway to invite Afghan Taliban to join a new round of negotiations. Gone is the phrase "good and bad Taliban". Now there's talk of "reconcilable and irreconcilable". And Afghanistan is renewing its long standing demand for the Pakistan military to take action against the "irreconcilable" Afghan groups operating from its territory who refuse to come to the table.

Asked about accusations from Pakistan that the recent deadly attack on a University in their city of Charsadda was organised in Afghanistan, President Ghani says the attack was the "unintended consequence" of Pakistan's recent military operations along their border, which pushed fighters into Afghanistan.

"We need to work together," he insists.

President Ghani's Davos trip is a packed schedule: meetings with senior US officials and Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to tackle old stubborn problems; meetings with CEOs of the world's major financial and technology firms to focus on future potential.

"We have received every negative feature of globalisation and it's time that we received some of its positive aspects", he says.

Interview over, the former World Bank official strides through a crowded corridor to meet the kind of people who can, in theory at least, help make that happen - as hard as it may be.

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