An Islamic State faction is expanding its footprint northward in Afghanistan, even as U.S. and allied forces relentlessly bombard the terror faction’s major redoubts in the eastern part of Afghanistan, the Pentagon acknowledged Tuesday.
Small elements of the Afghan cell, formally known as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria-Khorasan Group or ISIS-K, have secured a presence in the northern Afghanistan provinces of Faryab and Jowzjan, which sit along the country’s border with Turkmenistan, the top U.S. commander said Tuesday.
Factions of the The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which have long operated along Afghanistan’s northern borders with Central Asia, pledged their allegiance to the Islamic State in 2015. It remains unclear whether ISIS’s expansion into northern Afghanistan is being spearheaded by the Uzbek terror group or elements from its major strongholds in eastern Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province.
Gen. John Nicholson told reporters at the Pentagon that U.S. and coalition forces have stepped up their aerial campaign against ISIS-K in Nangarhar province over the last several months.
“A lion’s share” of American and allied airstrikes, which have increased threefold since President Trump’s new Afghan war plan was unveiled in August, have focused on ISIS-K targets in and around Nangarhar, Gen. Nicholson said in a video briefing from Kabul.
The expanded airstrikes against ISIS-K targets, as well as strikes on narcotics trafficking locations operated by the Taliban, were carried out under new authorities granted to U.S. forces by the White House. ISIS-K now holds sway over three of Nangarhar’s 22 districts, the four-star general said. A massive ISIS tunnel complex inside the Afghan province was the target of an April airstrike, in which in which American forces for the first time dropped the “mother of all bombs,” a 22,000-pound munition which is one of the largest conventional weapons in the Pentagon’s arsenal.
Shortly after the massive airstrike, a joint U.S.-Afghan raid on ISIS-K redoubts in Nangarhar province ended with the death of Hafiz Sayed Khan, the head of the terror group faction. In July, Khan’s replacement as the head of ISIS-K, Abu Sayed, and several other of the terror group’s members were killed in a joint U.S.-Afghan-led counterterrorism raid in eastern Afghanistan’s Kunar Province.
The renewed push against ISIS-K is part of a larger coalition strategy to have Afghanistan’s central government in control of 80 percent of the country within the next two years.
Aside from expanding to the north, ISIS-K is also looking to recruit members from Pakistani wing of the Taliban, Gen. Nicholson said. The number of the group’s fighters being driven into Afghanistan as a result of Pakistani counterterrorism operations has created an experienced and willing recruiting pool for ISIS-K.
Washington and Islamabad have been uncomfortable bedfellows in counterterrorism operations since the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
Some U.S. officials fear Pakistan’s intelligence agency has been covertly training and financing extremist terror groups. Islamabad has fired back counter-accusations that Washington’s heavy military and political support for India has undermined regional stability efforts.
But Islamabad has carried out an energetic counterterrorism campaign against the Pakistani Taliban and other extremist factions in the volatile North and South Waziristan regions over the last year, clearing and holding wide swaths of former Taliban country.
But that success did not stop Mr. Trump from criticizing what he said was Islamabad’s record of harboring extremists groups to advance its own regional agenda.
“We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond,” Mr. Trump said in August while outlining the administration’s new Afghan strategy.
While American and allied commanders in Afghanistan have seen Pakistani Taliban fighters join ISIS-K’s ranks, Gen. Nicholson flatly dismissed claims that ISIS fighters fleeing Iraq and Syria have made it onto the battlefields of Afghanistan.
“I would be very surprised” if that were the case, the general said.