US tar­gets IS safe haven in Afghanistan

The Star Early Edition - - WORLD - WASH­ING­TON POST

ACHIN: A re­cur­ring rum­ble of ex­plo­sions echoes off the bar­ren, boul­der-strewn slopes of the Spin Ghar moun­tains, each ord­nance aimed wish­fully at re­doubts where Is­lamic State (IS) mil­i­tants are sus­pected of hid­ing. Afghan and US spe­cial forces lis­ten in on enemy chat­ter, in­ter­cept­ing dozens of their ra­dio chan­nels. Amer­i­can AC-130 gun­ships and F-16 fighter jets cir­cle over­head, at low al­ti­tude, wait­ing for strike or­ders. Sol­diers on the ground man the mor­tars.

The op­er­a­tion against the IS in Kho­rasan, or ISIS-K – as the Syria-based group’s Afghan con­tin­gent is known – is now into its fourth month of un­remit­ting war­fare. The US mil­i­tary has pledged to “an­ni­hi­late” the group by year-end, and the re­dou­bled as­sault has contributed to a spike in US airstrikes to lev­els not seen in Afghanistan since pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s troop surge in 2012. One in five of those strikes is against ISIS-K, de­spite it con­trol­ling only sliv­ers of moun­tain­ous ter­ri­tory.

The bat­tle is lop­sided, but each day the front line in Achin dis­trict moves back only slightly. Lo­cal in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials and the US mil­i­tary be­lieve ISIS-K is re­plen­ish­ing its stock of fight­ers as quickly as it loses them. A sense that this may be an in­def­i­nite mis­sion has set in.

Soon af­ter its found­ing in 2014, ISIS-K es­tab­lished this dis­trict as its strong­hold. En­tire vil­lages emp­tied as word of the group’s mer­ci­less­ness spread. Fight­ers strapped de­fi­ant lo­cal cler­ics to ex­plo­sives and filmed their det­o­na­tions. For nearly three years, ISIS-K held firm not just in the Spin Ghars but in the va­cated vil­lages in the fer­tile val­ley be­neath.

In April, the US mil­i­tary dropped its largest non-nu­clear bomb, a Moab – nick­named “the mother of all bombs” – on a cave com­plex in one of Achin’s val­leys, known as the Mo­mand. It is un­clear how many fight­ers, if any, were killed. The Moab – which felt so force­ful that “ev­ery ant in the val­ley must’ve died,” said one vil­lager – was fol­lowed by weeks of air strikes on com­pounds that ISIS-K fight­ers had held for two years.

On a re­cent trip up the val­ley, the bod­ies of at least four were still there, ly­ing in aban­doned fields over­grown with wild cannabis. The corpses were mostly just bones.

Over the past three years, ISIS-K has suc­ceeded in car­ry­ing out ghastly at­tacks in Afghanistan and Pak­istan. But as Is­lamic State ter­ri­tory in Iraq and Syria is whit­tled away, coali­tion forces are wor­ried that Afghanistan’s no­to­ri­ously un­govern­able east­ern prov­inces could be­come a safe haven for flee­ing fight­ers and a new stag­ing ground for at­tacks on the West.

The Pen­tagon main­tains that ISIS-K is down to about 1 000 fight­ers across Afghanistan, from 2 500 in 2015, but an Afghan in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer es­ti­mated there were more than 1 000 in Achin dis­trict alone.

Last week, the Pen­tagon an­nounced a US drone strike killed Abu Sayed, ISIS-K’s leader, or emir, in neigh­bour­ing Konar prov­ince.

PIC­TURE: AN­DREW QUILTY FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Afghan com­man­dos man a check­point in Afghanistan’s Mo­mand Val­ley. The build­ing was cap­tured from the Is­lamic State in Kho­rasan, which used it as a prison and court.

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