JALALABAD, Afghanistan -- A remote mountainous district in eastern Afghanistan that was once central to efforts by the Islamic State (IS) to establish a foothold in the country appears to be back in government control.
Officials in the eastern province of Nangarhar said Afghan forces have reclaimed Kot district after a weeklong military offensive that culminated with commando raids on IS leadership hideouts in the region late on July 25.
Nangarhar provincial spokesman Attaullah Khogyani claimed Afghan forces killed more than 100 IS militants and have captured nearly 20.
He said the dead included Saad Emarati, a prominent local IS leader.
“He was believed to be deputy military commander of the group and led the IS militants in Kot,” Khogyani told Radio Free Afghanistan on July 26. “Before that, he was a Taliban leader [in the southeastern province of Logar].”
Afghan observers said Emarati was a significant IS leader and his killing will affect the group’s operations in eastern Afghanistan.
On July 26, the Afghan military took a few journalists on a brief tour of Kot, where they were shown an IS hideout and offices. The ultra-radical militant group, which now rules parts of Iraq and Syria, apparently tried to imitate its harsh rule in Nangarhar by establishing courts, prisons, clinics, and training centers.
The Afghan victory comes days after IS claimed responsibility for an attack on a rally of Shi’ite Hazaras in the capital, Kabul. More than 80 protesters were killed in the July 23 attack, which Kabul said was carried out by two suicide bombers.
Lawmaker Zabihullah Zmaray, a member of Nangarhar provincial council, said the current offensive in the province is more effective than past government efforts, which saw IS militants often returning as soon as the government forces had left.
Zmaray said the combination of NATO air support and extensive ground operations by Afghan special forces is making a visible difference.
“President Ashraf Ghani has ordered the Afghan forces to abandon their defensive posture and get on the offensive against IS,” he said. “This seems to be paying off.”
IS, locally known by its Arabic acronym Daesh, first emerged in the region in late 2014. It swiftly overran six Nangarhar districts bordering Pakistan last year. But its atrocities -- including beheadings and blowing civilians into pieces – have provoked local rebellions and operations by Afghan forces.
Earlier this month, General John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said IS has endured significant losses in Nangarhar. He told journalists that the group was now present in just three districts, down from nine last year.
IS perhaps faces a more existential challenge from the Taliban, who oppose its strict Takfiri Salafi interpretations and see its aim of building a transnational “caliphate” as a direct challenge to the revival of their “Emirate” -- the Taliban term for their hard-line regime that crumbled in late 2001 in the aftermath of a U.S.-led offensive against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
The Taliban and IS fighters have frequently clashed across Afghanistan with the Taliban apparently succeeding in defeating the IS in the southern provinces of Helmand, Farah, and Zabul -- all bordering Iran or close to its borders.
Zmaray said the Afghan authorities have learned hard lessons from their past mistakes and now intend to leave behind enough soldiers to secure the regions reclaimed from IS and build robust civilian administrations.
“We are determined to not create a vacuum for these extremists,” he said.
Zmaray and other officials are now hoping to reclaim neighboring Achin and Haska Maina districts from IS.
In Kot, an Afghan Army officer, who did not give his name, told an Afghan TV channel that the victory has given them a morale boost.
“I want to promise the people of Nangarhar that we will eliminate every single enemy fighter here,” he said.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Shah Mahmood Shinwari’s reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan.