US targets IS safe haven in Afghanistan
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.
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.