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Afghans battle Islamic State to stalemate in east

Afghan army soldiers man a Mobile Strike Force Vehicle on the front lines of an operation to clear Islamic State militants from areas along the border with Pakistan.

JOSH SMITH/STARS AND STRIPES

By JOSH SMITH | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 8, 2015

NANGARHAR PROVINCE — It’s slow going in the fight to dislodge Islamic State insurgents from the mountainous area along the Pakistan border, where Afghan soldiers are struggling against a new enemy they say is often better equipped and more motivated than the Taliban.

Fighters for Islamic State — which is also known as ISIS or Daesh — staged their first attack on security forces in September, killing and reportedly beheading several police officers. The action struck fear in the local population and triggered a government counteroffensive.

Here in Nangarhar province’s Achin district, the nascent Islamic State force in Afghanistan has made its greatest advances, seizing territory, battling both Taliban and government troops, and terrorizing residents who regard the group’s fighters as more brutal than other insurgents. Government forces say they will need more international support if they are to defeat the group, purportedly made up of Pakistani nationals and other ethnic groups, including Uzbeks, Chechens and Uighurs.

“We are fighting a new enemy,” Brig. Gen. Mohammed Nasim Sangin, commander of the Afghan army’s 4th Brigade, 201st Corps, said as he coordinated clearing operations and artillery barrages against Islamic State positions. “Daesh is more brutal. They will kill anyone they want.”

Ground zero for the latest government offensive is a scattering of villages at the mouth of Mamand Valley, one of three remote local mountain passes that militants reportedly use to cross the border with Pakistan. They travel back and forth on foot or horseback, often guiding donkey trains loaded with weapons and ammunition.

On the ground, government commanders described slow but steady progress against an estimated 1,200 to 1,600 Islamic State fighters in the area, roughly six miles from the Pakistani border. But residents and local leaders describe the situation as more like a stalemate.

Military and police officials claim they’ve killed more than 500 Islamic State fighters in more than 70 days of operations that have targeted the group’s strongholds in Nangarhar province. Those numbers are estimates and not actual body counts.

“We will defeat Daesh,” said Maj. Gen. Fazel Ahmad Sherzad, Nangarhar provincial police chief. But he cautioned that more international help was needed. “If they keep fighting like this, they will occupy the whole government. They are a threat not just to Afghanistan but the whole world.”

Residents say the government’s efforts have found only limited success. While security forces appear to have bottled up Islamic State fighters, preventing them from gaining new territory or raiding surrounding villages for supplies and hostages, they have yet to break into the group’s strongholds in the mountain valleys.

“Daesh is still in the same places it was two months ago,” said Malik Kameen, a local tribal leader. “The only service the Afghan security forces could provide was to limit the access Daesh has outside its stronghold in Achin, but they are not eliminated.”

The operation combines soldiers, police, and local militia, including some former members of the Taliban who have joined the government to fight Islamic State.

Afghan soldiers bemoan the lack of American airstrikes and, in light of America’s support for Pakistan, sometimes question the U.S.’s commitment to ending the conflict.

But international forces have not been entirely absent from the fight in Achin. At one point, foreign special operations soldiers arrived by helicopter along with Afghan commandos to attack a target, Sangin said. As the foreign choppers lifted off, they were attacked and fired back. Besides that, the general said, there had been no other international strikes.

Police say most of the villagers who could flee already have. Those who remain endure the pounding by the Afghan army of the surrounding hillsides and occasional heavy artillery fire from 122 mm howitzers and recoilless rifles.

On one clear day in early December, each exploding shell was followed by a rolling echo, like a freight train among the jagged mountains. Flashes of high explosives were followed by a shower of earth, then high, white columns of smoke. There was sporadic gunfire as soldiers and police assaulted Islamic State positions. Occasional pairs of MD-530 helicopter gunships spewed bursts of .50 caliber gunfire at unseen targets on the ground.

The Islamic State militants appeared to lack artillery, but still threatened ground troops and aircraft with heavy machine guns, anti-aircraft weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. Even in mud-walled neighborhoods ostensibly cleared by security forces, the crack of bullets from Islamic State snipers sent soldiers scrambling for cover in between firing volleys from their Russian-made recoilless rifles and the guns of their American-made armored fighting vehicles.

For all the flash, however, the results appeared less than spectacular, confirming reports by villagers of limited government advances over the past two months. One army company commander said in 20 days of occupying one village his men had managed to capture only four sniper rifles while possibly killing an unconfirmed number of militants.

In areas now protected by government checkpoints and forts, residents praised security forces for keeping Islamic State out. But the fear caused by the marauding militants still lingers. As many as 50 civilians have been taken hostage by Islamic State fighters holed up in the mountains, said Mohammad Aref, another tribal leader. Residents say most hostages are taken to try to extort money, and many villagers report losing hundreds of dollars (a fortune in these impoverished areas) to Islamic State.

Soldiers and locals share unverified videos of bloody public beheadings, while rumors of gruesome murders of children by Islamic State are rampant. Islamic State is reported to have closed schools, barred women from many public places and killed local leaders.

“They are trying to spread psychological terror,” said army Lt. Col. Qanagha Safi, whose men occupied an empty compound in the village of Abdul Khel, which was among the villages first struck by Islamic State in September. “They are extremists who are defaming Islam. We are also Muslim, so they are fighting Islam.”

Security officials identify the majority of the Islamic State’s fighters in the region as Pakistani nationals. Some are disaffected Taliban, but others are working directly for Pakistani military and intelligence services, declared Sherzad, the provincial police chief. But in a border area with close ties to Pakistan, the officials produced no hard evidence to back up their claims of official Pakistani involvement.

What soldiers and police do agree on, is that the Islamic State fighters pose a dangerous threat.

“Last year there were Taliban, but they were weaker than Daesh,” said Sohrab, an army intelligence officer, who like many Afghans, only uses one name. “But this year Daesh is here. And they are fighting to the death.”

Shaheedullah Sangin and Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.

smith.josh@stripes.com
Twitter: @joshjonsmith

This map shows the beleaguered Achin district of the Nangarhar province, Afghanistan. Near the border of Pakistan, this area has become a hotbed of Islamic State activity.

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