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Is Islamic State On The Verge Of Defeat In Last Afghan Stronghold?

Grab from a video released in August 2015 that shows militants loyal to the Islamic State (IS) blowing up bound and blindfolded Afghan prisoners with explosives.
Grab from a video released in August 2015 that shows militants loyal to the Islamic State (IS) blowing up bound and blindfolded Afghan prisoners with explosives.

The mood in one of Afghanistan's most dangerous frontlines is jubilant. After months of heavy fighting, Afghan troops and tribal volunteers have made significant progress against militants of the Islamic State (IS).

Afghan civilian leaders and military generals are adamant their relentless offensive against IS has cornered the ultra-radical Islamist militants in in their last Afghan stronghold in the eastern province of Nangarhar.

They point to the recent seizure of 20 villages from IS control in Achin. This mountainous Nangarhar district borders Pakistan and has served as the de-facto capital of Wilayat Khorasan, the name IS uses for its Afghanistan-Pakistan chapter.

Nangarhar's police chief, Fazl Ahmad Sherzad, says they are deploying tribal volunteers to the villages reclaimed from IS.

"This victory is made possible by the courage and valor of our security forces," he said. "We are now helping volunteers among Achin's Shinwari tribe to establish a lasting peace. I hope this leads to peace in Nangarhar and the rest of Afghanistan."

General Nasim Sangin, in charge of the Afghan Army offensive in Achin, says his forces are making rapid advances.

"We have killed more than 25 IS fighters while they left behind 10 injured fighters. We have also captured a large cache of weapons," he told journalists in Achin on February 14.

IS, which controls large swaths of Iraq and Syria, began to establish a foothold in Nangarhar early last year, soon after announcing the names of Wilayat Khorasan leaders. By summer, its fighters controlled many districts populated by the Pashtun Shinwari tribe. The IS push in Nangarhar has been marked by extreme atrocities against civilians. Tactics such as beheadings and prisoners being blown up with explosives prompted thousands of Shinwari families to flee to Nangarhar's capital, Jalalabad.

Nangarhar is strategically located connecting eastern Afghanistan to northwestern Pakistan through the Khyber Pass. A sanctuary in Nangarhar helped IS project power into Afghanistan and Pakistan. The region is seen as the last remaining IS stronghold after the group's leaders and many of its foot soldiers were killed in the southern provinces of Helmand, Zabul, and Farah.

Afghan and international forces used drone strikes, pitched gun battles, long-range artillery, and commando raids to prevent IS from expanding. Fighting separately, the Afghan Taliban, sometimes with covert Iranian support, have played a decisive role in downgrading IS military muscle. The Afghan Taliban appear to be adamant about preventing IS from replacing them as the major militant organization in Afghanistan.

Last week, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told the annual Munich Security Conference that IS is "on the run" in his country after suffering many casualties. He said the group's so-called Voice of Caliphate radio station in Nangarhar was "silenced" this month.

U.S. officials believe some 1,000 to 3,000 IS fighters were attempting to establish a base of operations in Nangarhar.

Hekmatullah Azamy, a researcher at the Kabul-based Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies, says IS is gathering all its fighters in Nangarhar. He says these include seasoned fighters from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, whose leader Usman Ghazi was reportedly killed by the Afghan Taliban late last year.

"My understanding is that instead of overstretched a presence throughout many provinces, IS has called on its affiliates to support their fighters in Nangarhar," Azamy said.

Shah Mahmood Shinwari contributed reporting from Nangarhar, Afghanistan.