Dispatch From the Frontline: Fighting ISIS in Afghanistan

2016-02-15-1455555546-3018575-IMG_8160.jpg Franz-Stefan Gady in Afghanistan

The sound of gunfire randomly shatters the barren silence of the battlefield. Whenever a 122-millimeter shell of the Afghan artillery hits the rock riddled soil and explodes, a muffled echo can be heard descending from the mountains that rise just to the South of the contested village. The rattling of machine guns alternates sporadically with the firing of rocket propelled grenades.

A recoilless SPG-9 Kopje gun positioned next to a tree unloads its deadly metal upon Islamic State fighters on the first ridge past the village. After every salvo, the tree, shrouded in white powdered smoke, sheds a few more of its withered leafs.

The last discharge of the SPG-9 provokes counter-fire. AK-47 rounds are whistling through the smoke-filled air and either hit the ground or smash into the mud wall of the farmhouse. Panic-stricken, the Afghan soldier behind the gun sprints behind an armored car. Bright white tennis sneakers highlight his desperate retreat.

Two black donkeys are madly pacing back and forth, stunned by the shocks of battle. The sky is clear blue and the winter sun is shinning. Two light attack helicopters of the Afghan Air Force circle above the village trying to mark enemy positions. Black traces of smoke trail behind the gunships as they discharge hot weapons .

For over twenty days Afghan National Security Forces have been fighting here in the village of Batan in Achin district, Nangahar Province in eastern Afghanistan against the reputed Islamic State in 'Khorasan'--an ancient region that used to include parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The fight over Batan is part of a major offensive, Operation Eagle 10, launched by the Afghan National Army in October of this year to drive the Islamic State (IS) out of Nangahar. Achin district is considered to be one of the chief IS strongholds in Afghanistan.

The village of Batan and adjacent settlements, situated at the foot of the Spinghar (White) Mountains control access to Maamand Valley, one of three valleys in Nangahar from which militants can cross on steep footpaths from Pakistan into Afghanistan.

Maamand Valley and the surrounding mountains have been under the control of Islamic State militants since July. After the takeover, most of the 80 families that lived in the valley fled to the provincial capital of Jalalabad. (According to the Afghan government, around 17,000 families have been displaced within Nangahar province due to IS related violence.) Maamand Valley was also the sight of one of the most heinous IS atrocities committed in Afghanistan. After being tortured, ten tribal elders were forced to kneel on buried explosives and then were obliterated.

Even the Taliban have not been spared barbaric execution, although they and IS fighters often stem from the same Pashtun tribes and in addition are all Sunni Muslims. According to witnesses, after IS had pushed the Taliban out of Maamand Valley, wounded Taliban fighters left behind were tortured before their execution with pepper poured into their wounds and their hands boiled in hot oil.

According to Afghan intelligence estimates, there are 1,200 to 1,600 IS fighters active in Nangahar province. Brigade General Muhammand Nasim Sangeen, head of the 201st Corps of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and overall commander of Afghan Security Forces in Nangahar, told The Diplomat that the majority of fighters are coming from Pakistan, primarily from the Urukzai and Afridi Pashtun tribes, which live in the Afghan-Pak border region.

A counterterrorism operation launched by the Pakistani Army in June 2014 forced the first 100 Pakistani Taliban--allegedly the core of the soon to be established Islamic State in Khorasan--to seek shelter in Maamand Valley. According to a recent United Nations study, IS is currently recruiting in 25 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces.

Only a fraction of IS fighters in Nangahar are Afghan Taliban that switched sides. As a result IS is actively trying to step up recruitment, in particular targeting young disenfranchised males in Achin District, occasionally through violent means and intimidation. "Daesh (IS) primarily tries to recruit notorious young troublemakers with difficult family backgrounds and kids who do not have anyone to take care of them," notes Sangeen.

One incentive to join IS is money. While the Taliban do not pay their fighters, the Islamic State, according to some accounts, offers new recruits a signing bonus of $400 to $500. In addition to the extent of its connection to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the local terror group's sources of income remain its largest mystery. One funding source is clear: the narcotics trade generates substantial revenue for IS in Afghanistan. Disputes over drug turf largely led the IS and Taliban to violently clash in the last few months causing the top Taliban leadership to dispatch over 1,000 additional fighters to Nangahar to stem the IS onslaught.

Brigadier General Sangeen and his men have been deployed in Nangahar for the past 70 days. Fighting IS is challenging,. "We are facing a new enemy, well trained, hoisting a new flag, sporting new weapons and fighting with new tactics," Sangeen notes. An Afghan soldier sitting in a trench from where he can oversee Batan reinforces Sangeen's statement: "The Taliban fight for one to two hours. Daesh fights until they die."

However, the cyclical movement of IS forces is an old story.. "When we beat them back, they [IS] retreat to their villages in Pakistan und come back in springtime," says the brigadier general--a problem with which the Americans and NATO had to wrestle for over a decade during counterinsurgency operations in the country.

That day, general Sangeen is coordinating the joint operation of the various branches of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) from a ridge north of Batan village. He sits in an armored Humvee alternatively giving orders over the radio and consulting with officers from the Afghan National Police, the Afghan National Civil Order Police, and the Afghan Local Police (i.e. the local tribal militia) and other government entities.

In the distance a few 122-millimeter rounds are bursting on top of a hill that, like a massive wall, seals off the entrance to the Maamand Valley. Some of the Afghan officers look distinctly bored while observing the shelling.

Until now, the ANDSF suffered 12 dead and 28 wounded in their fight against IS in Achin district. The Islamic State, however, according to Sangeen, has already lost 530 men killed in action and 330 wounded. If these numbers are correct, it would indicate a major victory for government forces.

Yet on the next day at the frontline, the head of the Afghan National Police in Nangahar, Major General Fazel Ahmad Jezal, repeats the same statistics, although a major assault on a hill to the southeast of Batan had taken place overnight with a number of casualties.

After repeated inquiries, both the chief of police and general Sangeen concede that IS casualties are mere estimates by Afghan intelligence. It thus remains unclear how many militants were killed during the operation so far.

In a trench next to Brigadier General Sangeen's command Humvee, chief of police Sangeen vehemently insists that the Islamic State in Khorasan is actually part of the Pakistan Army. "Yes, we are fighting the Pakistani Army," he insists . "IS wants to annex this area for Pakistan." It is, however, difficult to find substantial evidence for these claims. The chief of police can only cite Pakistani national I.D. cards taken from killed militants and Pakistani accents recorded during conversations intercepted by the Afghan military.

The deep suspicion that Afghans harbor against Pakistan is palpable. One Afghan commando dryly notes: "To make it brief. We are in war with Pakistan. We finally should declare all out war against Pakistan. IS is well trained by the Pakistan military. They all fight like commandos. They fight like us."

Jezal is also impressed with the fighting spirit of the Islamic State militants: "They are tactically very advanced. As soon as one group tires out either by taking casualties or by running low on ammunition, it will be rotated out. And, they have plenty of ammunition. Not even the Afghan Army can keep up. Should they continue to fight like this they might be able to overthrow the government."

Back in Batan village, a unit is just returning from an assault. The hardships of battle are written on the soldier's faces. Their eyes are wide open, and they have a fixed stare. Sweat steams streams down their faces. They breathe heavily.

In an abandoned farmhouse I meet Captain Zabiullah, the unit commander. His outfit has been fighting in and around the village for the past 20 days. "We kicked their asses today!," he exclaims. So far his men have captured four Russian-made assault rifles and killed 20 to 30 IS militants, Zabiullah claims.

The next unit is about to head to the frontline when the sound of battle begins to recede. A radio transmission announces that the day's objective has been achieved. The local time is 1pm. Even after repeated inquiries it is difficult to ascertain the precise criteria for stopping the fight. The plans for the next day have not been made. However, it appears that the Islamic State is still controlling the majority of the heights and mountains south of the village.

Frustrated, one member of the Afghan heavy artillery later complains: "We have retaken the villages many times and paid for it in blood. Yet at night we often retreat and Daesh returns.. Why are we retreating?" For now all units are staying put.

On the ridge from which the government attacks were coordinated no one is talking about retreat. "There will be no end to this fight. We will fight until we have destroyed them all," one pugnacious officer of the Afghan National Police tells me. Nevertheless, for that day, the fight seems to be over.

The ANSDF have little to show for an offensive that has been going on for the past 70 days. Until now they have not succeeded in dislocating the Islamic State militants from the Maamand Valley. The collection of villages at the foot of the Spinghar Mountains is the de facto frontline.

With winter approaching and the mountain passes blocked by snow and ice, the fighting will wind down over the next few weeks. Brigadier General Sangeen, however, is adamant about continuing the offensive during the winter months.

While Sangeen is giving further orders, a man standing behind the general's Humvee is talking on a cell phone. He wears a black Perehan tunban, the traditional dress of the Afghan Pashtun. He dons a full black beard and has long black hair. He is talking in a loud and assertive voice.

The individual's name is Sayed Jalal Pacha, the former top Taliban commander of Achin district. Now he is fighting along with the Kabul government against the Islamic State and one of the greatest military successes of the last days is due to him and his men. His son and 100 men of the Afghan Local Police--a tribal militia consisting of former Taliban fighters--wrested a strategically important hill from the hands of IS on the night of December 3rd.

This ad-hoc alliance was facilitated by the rise of the Islamic State in Afghanistan. How long this sort of cooperation will continue remains to be seen.

This article has been previously published in The Diplomat Magazine.