Seeking to capitalize on the death of a top Islamic State commander, Afghan forces surged through districts in eastern Afghanistan long held by the radical Islamist group as warplanes pounded militant hideouts, officials said Monday.
The offensive in the Nangahar Province aims to strike Islamic State fighters at a time when their numbers are down and their leadership could be in disarray after a U.S.-Afghan commando raid late last month killed a militant leader, Abdul Hasib.
It also underscores the widening military attention on Nangahar, where the U.S. military on April 13 dropped its largest non-nuclear bomb on a complex of caves and tunnels used by the Islamic State, reportedly killing 36 militants. Nangahar, on the border with Pakistan, is a main route for militant fighters and supplies.
But even as Afghan forces advanced into some villages for the first time in months, intense fighting extended across several areas.
Afghan officials said at least 34 militants had been killed by Afghan airstrikes since Sunday, but gave no figures on Afghan casualties. The role of U.S.-led coalition forces in the Nangahar offensive was not immediately clear.
The killing of the Islamic State commander Hasib in an April 27 night raid, announced Sunday by the Pentagon and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, was carried out by a team of 50 U.S. and 40 Afghan special operations forces. They assaulted a cluster of village buildings where Hasib and other Islamic State militants were staying, killing all of them and 35 guards.
Officials said the announcement of Hasib’s death was delayed until his remains could be positively identified.
It was the third major blow in recent months to the Islamic State in Khorasan, or ISIS-K, the regional branch of the Sunni extremist militia. Its forces include former Pakistani Taliban, Uzbeks and other foreign fighters.
Two U.S. Army Rangers also died during the April 27 operation, U.S. officials said. They have been identified as Sgt. Joshua P. Rodgers, 22, of Bloomington, Illinois, and Sgt. Cameron H. Thomas, 23, of Kettering, Ohio. Military officials said their deaths may have been caused by friendly fire and that the incident is under investigation.
The raid came eight months after the previous ISIS-K leader, or emir, Hafiz Saeed, was killed in a U.S. drone strike.
“This successful joint operation is another important step in our relentless campaign to defeat ISIS-K in 2017,” Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said in a statement.
“This is the second emir we have killed in nine months,” he said.
Afghan officials described Hasib, who replaced Saeed, as a charismatic and ambitious commander who orchestrated several high-profile attacks, including the March 8 stealth assault on Kabul’s military hospital that killed scores of patients and staff. Hasib, whose age was not known, was a former Taliban commander in Logar province who defected to ISIS. His name often included a third name of Logari to note his tribal roots.
“He was responsible for ordering the attack on the 400-bed hospital in Kabul, he kidnapped girls and beheaded elders in front of their families,” the president’s office said in a series of tweets Sunday night.
Afghan and U.S. special forces launched a counteroffensive against ISIS-K in early March, backed up by drone strikes, killing hundreds of its fighters and clearing numerous villages.
A U.S. military spokesman in Kabul, Navy Capt. William Salvin, estimated that the ISIS-K force has now been reduced from more than 2,500 fighters at its peak in 2015 to less than 600, mostly confined to several adjacent districts in Nangahar.
“They are still fighting very hard, but we intend to keep the pressure up until we destroy them,” Salvin said Monday.
A spokesman for the Nangahar governor, Ataullah Hoghiani, said the Islamic State had lost 40 percent to 60 percent of its fighting strength in the province. The Interior Ministry said government airstrikes had also destroyed a clandestine radio station that ISIS-K used to broadcast religious messages.
The presence of the Islamic State in Afghanistan has complicated the fight against the indigenous Taliban insurgents, stretching Afghan forces thin and introducing extreme anti-Shiite sectarianism in a country with a large Shiite minority. It has lured some Taliban members and created rivalries with others.
In recent days, Taliban fighters overran a district in northern Kunduz province while local security forces and officials said they were waiting for help and reinforcements.
A local police official, Azizullah Ayar, said numerous wounded officers were in need of evacuation, and that he had urgently asked for help but none had arrived.
“The government does not seem capable to deal with this issue,” Ayar said. “We have seen no airplanes, even to frighten the Taliban, let alone bomb them.”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Pamela Constable