A remote Afghan province has emerged as a new hideout for hundreds of foreign fighters including Pakistani and Central Asian militants.
General Ghulam Sakhi Rogh Lewanai, the police chief of the southern Zabul province, which borders southwestern Pakistan, confirmed to RFE/RL's Gandhara website that more than 300 foreign fighters fled to Zabul Province from the Waziristan tribal region after the Pakistani military launched a major operation against militants last year.
Lewanai says the militants were mainly Uzbeks, Arabs and Punjabis from Pakistan's eastern Punjab Province who arrived in Zabul after the Pakistani offensive began in June.
"These fighters infiltrated Zabul Province through the [bordering district of] Shamulzai," he says. "Most of them are now stationed in remote areas of Khak-e Afghan and Daychopan, Mizan, Naw Bahar, Arghandab and [the nearby district of] Nawa [in neighboring Ghazni Province]."
Lewanai says Afghan forces have limited access to sparsely populated mountainous districts where the rugged terrain poses significant obstacles to troop movement and military operations.
Zabul has been a hotbed of the Afghan Taliban's revival since 2003 and is considered an Afghan backwater favorable for insurgents. Although it doesn't share a border with Pakistan's restive tribal areas, it is connected to Waziristan through Zhob, a district of the southwestern Balochistan province.
Waziristan, divided into North and South districts, emerged as a major hideout for the Afghan Taliban and allied extremists from Al-Qaeda as well as Central Asian and Pakistani militants following the demise of the Afghan Taliban regime in 2001.
A Pakistani military operation in South Waziristan in 2009 forced most of the militants into North Waziristan, from where many of them were pushed out by Zarb-e Azab. This Pakistani military operation began in June 2014 and forced more than 1 million civilians from North Waziristan to flee their homeland.
Afghan officials are now viewing the emerging militant sanctuary in Zabul as a serious national security threat. In his address to the U.S. Congress last month, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani showcased it as a major concern.
"Terrorist movements whose goal is to destabilize every state in the region are looking for new bases of operation," he told U.S. lawmakers. "Pakistan’s counter-insurgency operations, in which more than 40,000 people have already died, are pushing the Taliban from Waziristan toward Afghanistan’s border regions."
Zabul's officials and lawmakers disagree on the affiliation and strength of foreign militants in the province.
Dawood Golzar, the former head of Zabul's peace council, says the foreign militants are linked to Lashkar-e Taiba and Lashkar-e Janghvi. These notorious militant groups originated in Pakistan's eastern Punjab Province and have respectively targeted India and Pakistan's Shi'ite Muslim minority.
Golzar said that according to villagers the militant wear masks and carry black flags similar to the flag of the Islamic State (IS), also known as ISIS or ISIL.
"These are masked men, and they go into the villages, too. They have not interfered in local affairs, but they are visiting mosques and talking about Shari'a through interpreters," he said.
He says these foreign fighters were involved in the kidnapping of 31 Shi'ite Hazara men in Zabul's Khak-e Afghan district on February 23.
Golzar says the foreign militants in Zabul operate under Mansoor Dadullah -- a maverick Afghan Taliban commander notorious for shifting allegiances.
But in a recent interview reproduced by a pro-Taliban website, Dadullah denied leading the foreign militants in Zabul. He did say, however, that the Afghan Taliban was hosting militants after they were pushed out of their North Waziristan sanctuary.
Dadullah said the Taliban was now negotiating with foreign militants to free the Hazara civilians.
Abdul Qader Qalatwal represents Zabul in the Afghan Parliament. He also confirmed the presence of masked foreign fighters in different districts of Zabul.
"They operate independently and don't operate under the command of the Afghan Taliban. The local Taliban has had issues with these foreign fighters in some areas. That was why they chose to go to [the remote,] rugged mountainous regions of Zabul."
Qalatwal added that a number of fighters have already moved further south to Helmand Province and onward to Faryab in the north.
Lewanai, Zabul's police chief, says the militants will not pose a big threat to Afghan forces when the traditional fighting season begins in spring.
"They will continue to support the Taliban insurgents and won’t engage in major battles because they are not as familiar with the territory as the local Taliban," he said.
For Qalatwal, however, the foreign fighters pose an imminent threat.
"They will be pursuing greater goals after carving out a sanctuary here," he said.