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Fighting Daesh in Afghanistan
"It's Complicated"

The Battle Against Islamic State in Afghanistan
- and the Blurring Lines that Further Complicate it

Franz J. Marty, Achin District, Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan, 10 February 2018

Achin District Nangarhar Province Afghanistan
Achin District Nangarhar Province

The quiet scenery – a stone-strewn plain leading to rugged mountains, the ones close-by small and bleak, the ones on the horizon rocky massifs capped with snow – betray the battles that have raged here and are, further up in the mountains, still raging. Only the many small forts on the way up to the valleys, now flying Afghan flags, hint at the fact that the district of Achin, located in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar, is the main battleground between the self-declared Islamic State’s regional chapter that was proclaimed in January 2015 and Afghan government and militia forces supported by their U.S. allies. And while the unforgiving mountainous terrain is a formidable challenge for all parties, especially for U.S. forces it is sometimes also hard to tell their friends from their foes, as there have been occasions in which alleged or real members of their Afghan allies have turned their weapons against U.S. soldiers.

Hit, but not Defeated

Since early 2016, the Afghan government has more than once declared the defeat of the Islamic State – in Afghanistan referred to by its derogatory Arabic acronym Daesh – in Achin and other southern parts of Nangarhar; or asserted that the group is “on the run”. But so far, the even for local standards zealous extremists always came back. The harsh mountains play into the hands of guerrilla-like insurgents. There, Daesh fighters can move back and forth from valley to valley – on the Afghan side and allegedly also across the border to Pakistan that runs through the Spin Ghar mountain range. “It’s like a balloon,” U.S. Army General John W. Nicholson, commander of U.S. Forces – Afghanistan and the NATO-led coalition, explained on 28th of November 2017. “We squeeze them in this area and they’ll try to move out elsewhere.”

Map Nangarhar Province Afghanistan
Map of Location of Nangarhar Province (derivedfrom CIA map)

A brief visit to Achin in mid-January showed that joint Afghan-U.S. efforts have once again pushed Daesh up into the bleak mountains – well further up than the caves at the entrance to the Momand valley that the extremists allegedly had used as a stronghold until in April 2017 - when U.S. forces dropped one of the largest conventional bombs ever built to obliterate them. During my visit, the drop site sat idly in the bright sunshine. The scorched trees, burned down where the blaze of the air blast roared over the ground and into the caves (the used GBU-43/ B MOAB explodes above the ground), and some rubble, were the only reminder of the unprecedented strike.

Districts of Nangarhar Province
Districts of Nangarhar Province (Wikipedia)

How much further up the militants have been driven, could not be determined as soon after the drop site a checkpoint manned by regular Afghan National Army and militia personnel blocked the road. The Afghan soldier at the checkpoint did not have any exact information on the situation in the valley. “From here on, there are only Afghan Commandos, U.S. Special Forces and Daesh fighters,” he said, and he and his colleagues aren’t told anything about their operations. At least during the few minutes I had been there, the valley laid quiet under the snow covered mountain range towering on the horizon. Unsurprisingly, a radioed request for permission to go further up was denied.

Afghan Commandos Momand Valley Nangarhar Province

Afghan Commandos prepare to conduct operations in Momand Valley
(Photo by SPC Jacob Krone, NSOCC-A, Feb 10, 2018)

How the fight against Daesh in Afghanistan is proceeding is not only here in Achin, but also in general, hard to tell. U.S. officials put the number of killed Daesh fighters in Afghanistan during 2017 at about 1,600; the Afghan Ministry of Defence even at around 1,900. Such numbers are questionable though, as despite such claims U.S. estimates for still active Daesh fighters in Afghanistan hover around 1,000 (sometimes a few hundreds more, sometimes a few hundreds less) since spring 2016. Hence, it seems more likely that either the numbers of killed or active Daeshis (or both) are flawed than that Daesh is able to replenish their forces that fast.

In any event, and despite allegations to the contrary, Daesh has so far been unable to significantly expand in Afghanistan. While U.S. Forces – Afghanistan acknowledge minor Daesh pockets in the province of Kunar, which neighbours Nangarhar (but not Achin), and the far away northern province of Jowzjan, the nature of the group’s presences there remain unclear. There is virtually no substantiated information about Daesh in Kunar available. And although a group in Jowzjan openly uses Daesh insignias, there are indications that this might be more a simple branding with benefits for both – Daesh and the local group in Jowzjan – than an actual formal and operational bond. Allegations of a Daesh presence in other provinces are even more obscure and might well be based on (intentional or unintentional) misidentifications or exaggerations.

Apart from that, Daesh has increasingly claimed responsibility for deadly terrorist attacks in the capital Kabul. In how far such attacks are really conducted by the group, cannot be definitively said though. While there are signs of possible Daesh cells in the Afghan capital, they are scarce and not clear; similarly, some, including the Afghan government, assert that other groups (in particular the Haqqani Network that is seen as an integral part of the Taliban by most) is behind such attacks, but tellingly fail to substantiated their allegations.

Militia vehicle Achin district Nangarhar province

Militia vehicle in the Momand Valley - Nangarhar province

Friend or Foe?

What makes the fight against Daesh in Achin even worse for U.S. troops is that they sometimes can’t be sure, who is on their side and who not, as on some occasions purported allies have opened fire on them. And while this also happens in areas without Daesh presence, there are hardly anywhere as many parties (Afghan government forces, Daesh, pro- government militias and sometimes also Taliban) involved as in Achin. Hence, the situation is even more complicated than in other parts of the country and not always as clear as official statements suggest, as a recent incident in Achin’s Momand Valley, that left an Afghan pro- government militia member dead and a U.S. soldier as well as an interpreter wounded, shows.

According to U.S. Forces – Afghanistan, on 11th of January “an insurgent affiliated group posing as local militia (…) baited a local Afghan militia leader, and a U.S. service member with an Afghan interpreter into a compound under the pretense of a security (…) meeting. Upon completion of the meeting, multiple members of the insurgent group opened fire with small arms weapons at the local Afghan militia leader.” In retaliation, a U.S. airstrike destroyed said compound, killing at least 10 alleged insurgents.

The airstrike did not kill everyone though – according to locals, one eyewitness of the incident survived the bombardment unharmed. And he contests the U.S. version. (While the eyewitness himself was not in Achin during this author’s visit and could – despite efforts – not be reached afterwards, a relative recounted what the witness had told him.)

According to this account, no insurgents were present in the area and the militia member killed in the initial shooting was part of the group that was setting up a post in a vacated compound. The meeting with U.S. soldiers had been friendly: they drank tea together, talked about fortifying their post and the U.S. soldiers promised to repair or replace a broken radio. When the meeting was over, the U.S. soldiers, the interpreter and a militia member left the compound in a buggy that U.S. forces use to move around the difficult terrain. The account of the eyewitness could not exactly say what happened next, but insists that someone inside the buggy opened fire. After a few shots that killed the militia member and wounded the others, the eyewitness claimed to have offered his help to the wounded, but said that the U.S. soldiers declined and left. Shortly afterwards, the militia compound was bombarded.

Both versions raise questions. For example, why would insurgents posing as militia members risk conducting a meeting, in which the real militia member accompanying U.S. soldiers might had been able to expose them, instead of shooting right away? How could several men who allegedly opened fire on their unaware victims only wound – but fail to kill – a U.S. soldier and his interpreter? On the other hand, if it was only an accidental shooting or only the militia member killed in the shooting had fired, why would the U.S. bombard the compound afterwards?

Shadal Bazaar Achin District Nangarhar Province

Shadal Bazaar, Achin District, Nangarhar Province

Answering these questions proved impossible. The incident itself took place inside the valley, in an area that was off limits. And locals in Shadal Bazaar, a nearby settlement that had been captured by Daesh in the past, but is since months again under firm government control, couldn’t give any details. This included the teenage brother of the militia member killed in the initial shooting, who loitered around the stalls of the bazaar that sell goods ranging from fresh vegetables to mobile phones and are topped by myriads of Afghan flags that wave in the clear blue sky. “The only thing I know is that my brother died as a result of gunshot wounds to his thigh, but I can’t say what had happened,” he stated in a low voice. If true, such wounds to only one thigh would appear inconsistent with the shooting claimed by U.S. Forces – Afghanistan that declined to address this and other questions, referring to their original statement.

Locals insist though that at the time of the incident no insurgents were present in the area – and the fact that in February 2016 people from the region had told this author that some militia groups, but not the one in question, have close ties to the Taliban or are Taliban themselves, lends credibility to their current statements, as they acknowledge that the situation is not black and white. This, paired with earlier instances in which the Taliban have incorrectly claimed insider attacks, make the Taliban spokesman’s allegation that also in the incident at hand Taliban insiders had opened fire unreliable.

This is all the more the case, as the Taliban name the surviving eyewitness as one of the alleged insiders. However, according to Khair Mohammed, the militia commander in Achin, said surviving eyewitness was cleared of any wrongdoing by Haji Zahir Qadir, a member of the Afghan parliament and overall leader of the militia, and sent back to Achin, where he is again serving at a militia checkpoint.

Hence, and whatever happened, this either means that an alleged insurgent is again manning an outpost of a U.S. allied militia or that U.S. forces mistakenly bombarded such U.S. allied militia members – both prospects are far from good, but show how blurry the line between friends and foes can be in Achin. And even without such difficulties, the recent past has proven that Daesh is more than resilient in its Afghan stronghold in southern Nangarhar.


Franz J. Marty is a freelance journalist based in Afghanistan. He writes on a broad range of topics, but focuses on security and military matters. He can be followed @franzjmarty (https://twitter.com/franzjmarty) on twitter.

The above article has been originally published as a Swedish translation by Blankspot (https://www.blankspot.se/striden-mot-is-i-afghanistan-blir-allt-mer-komplicerad/).

 

 


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