So-called Islamic State has wreaked havoc in eastern Afghanistan since 2015, mostly through its loose affiliates — attacking government installations and villages, killing and abducting hundreds of people, and keeping schools shuttered and replacing them with IS religious seminaries. It also claimed responsibility for several deadly attacks in the country’s capital, Kabul.
Here is a rundown of how IS operates in Afghanistan:
Branching out from Iraq and Syria – and fueled by a growing militancy in Central Asia – IS launched its operations in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region two years ago, naming it IS’s Khorasan province (IS-K) to cover Afghanistan, Pakistan, and “other nearby lands.” The name refers to a centuries-old description of Afghanistan and surrounding areas of Central Asia and Persia.
IS-K’s founder, Hafiz Saeed Khan, a former Pakistani Taliban commander, appeared in a video in January 2015, along with 10 militant commanders — each representing a sub-region within the Afghan-Pak region — pledging allegiance to IS.
According to U.S. and Afghan officials, most IS-K fighters are former members of the Pakistani Taliban group (TTP), many of whom belong to the Orokzai tribe in Pakistan. A number of Central Asian militants in Afghanistan, who previously were associated with al-Qaida and Taliban, joined the IS cause. Some Afghan militants also have joined IS-K ranks for financial gains.
Based in southern parts of eastern Nangarhar province, IS-K has taken root in mountainous areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Last year it had a presence in at least 12 Nangarhar districts. The group also expanded to neighboring Kunar province, but has had fewer activities there.
IS-K has been attempting to expand to other parts of the country. Central Asian fighters who have pledged allegiance to IS have a presence in southern Zabul province.
The group also claims to have a presence in northern Jouzjan and Faryab provinces, where some militants who were previously associated with the Taliban said they have have joined IS-K. The son of a fabled slain Uzbek militant commander, Tahir Yuldash — co-founder and former leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) — reportedly has been luring Uzbek men in northern provinces to join the group, according to Afghan officials.
According to the U.S.-led Resolute Mission in Afghanistan, there were about 3,000 IS-K members in Afghanistan last year. The number, however, has been reduced to a few hundred fighters this year.
"In 2016, we believed that year began with about 3,000 or so ISIS-K members in about 12 districts in southern Nangarhar," U.S. Navy Capt. Bill Salvin, spokesperson for Resolute Support in Kabul told VOA last month. "Right now, we believe there are about 600 ISIS-K members in two or three districts in southern Nangarhar."
American and Afghan forces conduct counterterrorism operations together. U.S. forces pursue a two-way approach to combating IS-K.
"The first is the unilateral U.S. counterterrorism mission called Operation Freedom, and that is where we will conduct the operations against terrorist groups like ISIS-K on our own," Salvin said. "The other way that we are attacking ISIS-K is in partnered operations with the Afghan special forces."
Losing Or Winning?
U.S.-led NATO officials and members of the Afghan government say their security operations in recent months have reduced IS-K’s strength from several thousand to now under 1,000 fighters, and their territorial control from more than 10 districts to fewer than five.
Pentagon officials said on April 28 that they suspected the Islamic State leader in Afghanistan, Abdul Haseeb, was killed in a three-hour firefight in the Mohmand Valley, in the Achin district of eastern Nangarhar province. Officials said another 35 IS fighters also had been killed.
Haseeb is not the only IS commander to have been killed in U.S.-Afghan security operations in the region. Several top IS-K commanders recently have been killed in counterterrorism airstrikes, including its leader Saeed Khan, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in July 2016.
But despite the battlefield losses, IS-K has "shown an ability to conduct attacks in Kabul and elsewhere in the country," General John Nicholson, the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, recently told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
U.S. and Afghan forces say they are determined to defeat the extremist group in the country this year.
"Our goal in 2017 is to defeat ISIS-K in Afghanistan," Salvin said.
The U.S. Air Force this month dropped "the mother of all bombs" on IS-K’s stronghold in Nangarhar’s Achin district, killing at least 95 IS fighters, mostly foreign fighters.
-- Reported by Noor Zahid for Voice of America