In the very high mountains of Nangrahar are hiding out the last few, small groups of Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) fighters in that province. The group was driven out of their last remaining bases in Nangrahar at the end of last year. Who drove them out is, however, contested: the government, the Taleban and local people have all claimed the victory. Speaking to local sources, AAN’s Obaid Ali finds a picture emerging in which all three played a role in pushing back the militant group, as well as the US military and finally, the weather. He looks at how ISKP came under pressure in Nangrahar, and surveys the latest security and political dynamics they have left in their wake (with input from Thomas Ruttig). ISKP fighters photographed alongside their captured weapons after their surrender to Afghan government in November 2019. (photo: Noorullah Shirzada/AFP)
Given what looks to be ISKP’s historic defeat in Nangrahar, the author will also take the opportunity in a second dispatch to provide a look back at how the group came to be so strong in this province, detailing its capture of territory, which districts it held and how they were lost and the biographies of its (now mostly dead) leaders.
Claims of an ISKP defeat in Nangrahar 1: the government
The Afghan government claims it was its security forces which cleared ISKP from Nangrahar province. Four days after a two-month-long Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) ‘clearance operation’, involving the army and police units, National Directorate of Security (NDS) paramilitaries and NDS-supported Popular Uprising Forces, ended on 19 November 2019, President Ashraf Ghani visited Nangrahar. “I am proud of the security forces and public uprising groups that defeated ISKP in Nangrahar,” he said. The president said that more logistical support and ammunition would be given to the Uprising Forces so that they could “eliminate the Taleban and other terrorist groups” from the province, as well (read more here).
Speaking to AAN, Nangrahar’s provincial governor Shahmahmood Miakhel has given more details about the outcome of the operations. On 23 November 2019, he said Afghan security forces started their operations against ISKP’s main base in Nangrahar, in the Bandar valley of Achin, the district where ISKP first emerged in 2014 and which the group held until November 2019. After demolishing this base, the governor said security forces conducted similar operations against ISKP bases in Pachir wa Agam, Khogyani and Sherzad districts. He said they continued for two months and were supported by airstrikes from the United States airforce. The US military has, in fact, been heavily involved in the fight against ISKP (read eye-witness accounts here), with ground forces working with Afghans, especially Afghan special forces, since 2017.
According to Governor Miakhel, 50 ISKP fighters were killed and around 60 others fled to Pakistan. More than 250 ISKP members – the majority of them from Pakistan – surrendered to government troops, along with 426 children and 237 women, mostly Pakistani. There were Afghan fighters among those who surrendered, along with men from Iran, Jordan, India, Tajikistan, the Maldives, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The governor declined to give exact figures about the foreign fighters but said “around eight” of them were from Central Asian states.
A large portion of the ISKP fighters did, in fact, flee north to Kunar province that also borders Pakistan, a fact not mentioned by the governor. According to journalists and civil society activists in Kunar, ISKP has also transferred its Voice of Khelafat radio station from Nangrahar to Kunar. However, it seems it has not yet resumed broadcasting (more details about ISKP in Kunar will appear in a forthcoming AAN report). According to several local journalists who follow insurgency dynamics in eastern Afghanistan, ISKP had previously established bases in Kunar, specifically in Nurgal, Narang, Watapur, Tsaukay (aka Chawki), and Dara-ye Pech districts.
The rough number of foreign fighters given by Governor Miakhel is far fewer than previously estimated. For example, a July 2019 United Nations Security Council report put the number of Central Asian fighters only and in Nangrahar alone at 200. The report put the total number of ISKP members of all nationalities including Afghan, in the whole of the country at between 2,500 and 4,000, with “about 2,100 of them concentrated in Kunar province.” This means Kunar province is now the remaining main base in Afghanistan of a weakened ISKP following its defeat in Nangrahar.
Local journalists and some international NGOs following militancy dynamics in eastern Afghanistan told AAN that as a result of the offensives, most of ISKP’s prominent commanders and foreign fighters in Nangrahar had actually fled eastwards, either to the Khyber or Kurram Agencies of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan that border Nangrahar and Kunar. According to an eyewitness in Nazyan district, smugglers made thousands of dollars transporting ISKP fighters from Nangrahar to Kunar. He said prices ranged from 100,000 to 200,000 Pakistani Rupees (650-1300 USD) per person, varying according to the nationality and rank of the fighters. It was mainly low-ranking fighters and those with less money, plus those who had children and women with them, he said, who surrendered to the Afghan government.
Today, some small groups of 15-20 ISKP fighters only still operate in some remote areas of Deh Bala, Pachir wa Agam and Khogyani districts. When it comes to logistics and supplies, local journalists said that their families – who usually stay in the villages – provide them with basic food (bread) and water. These are sent to them by elders once or twice a week. Only their families know the fighters’ locations and hideouts. The reason for this ongoing support is a mindset dominating in those villages, said the journalist, that the ISKP fighters are ‘mujahedin’.
Claims of an ISKP defeat in Nangrahar 2: the Taleban
The Taleban have also claimed the victory. On 27 November 2019, they said it was their fighters who had wiped out ISKP in Nangrahar. Within a few days of President Ghani’s visit to Nangrahar, the head of the Taleban’s intelligence committee for the eastern region, Mawlawi Neda Muhammad Nadim, told Voice of Jihad, the Taleban’s official website, that it was they who had carried out the anti-ISKP offensives in Nangrahar, not the government (read more here): the offensives, he said, had been led by the military commission of the Taleban’s Leadership Council (known as the Quetta Shura) and fighters from the Taleban’s Red Unit, their ‘special forces’, as well as Taleban reinforcements from Nangrahar, Kandahar, Zabul, Laghman, Logar, Ghazni, Maidan Wardak, Paktia, Paktika, Khost and Kabul provinces.
According to Nadim, the Taleban simultaneously carried out attacks against ISKP from ten directions in Deh Bala, Pachir wa Agam, Khogyani, Sherzad and Momand Dara districts. Because of the difficult geography, he said, the offensives had continued for two months. As a result of Taleban pressure in these districts, ISKP fighters fled to the Pakha area of Achin district, where the Taleban then cornered the remaining men. Mawlawi Nadim said it was because of Taleban pressure that the ISKP fighters finally surrendered to the Afghan government.
Whatever else it indicates, Nadim’s statement demonstrates how weak the local Taleban in Nangrahar are, that they had not been capable of preventing ISKP from establishing bases in the province, nor, despite fighting since 2014, had they been able to defeat ISKP without outside support.
Claims of an ISKP defeat in Nangrahar 3: local people
Another party fighting the ISKP – not mentioned by Nadim – was armed members of the local population. Speaking to AAN, local elders in Khogyani and Achin districts said it was their forces which had defeated ISKP. Haji Alam Gul, a tribal elder in Khogyani, said locals had initiated the fight against the ISKP and pushed the group back from the villages they had captured. According to one media report, the uprising against ISKP was triggered by “a local revolt” in the Bandar valley in September/October last year that “lasted 45 days.” Alam Gul said that, without local support, neither the government nor the Taleban would have been able to eliminate ISKP.
Local resentment against ISKP among the population grew in 2015, as the group became stronger and started to behave more brutally, including by detaining and beheading locals, after accusing them of being government or Taleban spies. Speaking to AAN, a medical worker in Achin said many people also fled from their ISKP-controlled villages when ISKP fighters occupied their homes. Local communities in many parts of Achin, Khogyani and Sherzad districts set up and funded their own uprising forces to fight the ISKP. In 2016, the government stepped in and provided ammunition and logistical support. According to a security organisation in the east, the Uprising Forces receive support from the NDS, as well as from the US. The medical worker in Achin said that most uprisers in Achin were men who had lost family members and homes because of ISKP brutality in their villages.
By mid-2018, Uprising Forces had pushed the ISKP back from parts of Sherzad, Achin, Nazyan, Khogyani and Pachir wa Agam districts (read media reports here, here, and here). In the same year, local Taleban also carried out a number of offensives against ISKP in Khogyani, Pachir wa Agam, Achin, and Sherzad districts, but they remained largely ineffective. Local elders told AAN that before their offensive started in 2018 they had sought Taleban’s support in Deh Bala and Achin districts, and when elders asked them for ammunition and logistical support, the Taleban told them to reach out to the government. A local journalist also said the Taleban had been unwilling to provide the locals with any ammunition and weapons. In the end, civilians were armed and supported by the government, through the NDS and with backing from the US.
Malek Nader, a tribal elder in Achin district, also gave AAN more details about the final offensive at the end of last year. He said the Taleban only fought against ISKP in the mountainous parts of the district. It was when ISKP failed to repulse the Taleban’s attacks, he said, that some of its fighters had come down to the lower areas, to surrender to Uprising Forces and Afghan security forces which had bases in these areas. This version of events seems to indicate that, indeed, most of the latter phase of the fighting was carried out by the Taleban; they attacked ISKP in their bases in the mountains, while government forces, which had captured the lower-lying areas from the ISKP with the support of the US military in 2017, then claimed their surrender. A January 2020 United Nations Security Council report acknowledged the Taleban’s role and said that both Afghan security forces and Taleban had inflicted severe damage on ISKP, “displacing it from large areas of Nangrahar.”
Finally, a fourth ‘actor’ cannot be overlooked – the weather. Heavy snowfall in the Spin Ghar mountains that started at the beginning of November caused serious problems for ISKP during the final offensive. Locals told AAN it blocked ISKP’s supply and escape routes to the Tirah and Bara areas of Khyber agency of Pakistan. According to the medical worker in Achin, the blockade also steeply increased local prices for daily goods. A 50-kilogramme sack of wheat that usually costs 1200 Afghani (16 USD) doubled in price. Sources close to ISKP told AAN that because of the shortage of ammunition and other supplies, the group was left with only two options – either flee to Kunar or Pakistan or surrender.
As to the ISKP’s view on its defeat, its media and social media supporters have so far not commented on the Nangrahar military operations, the surrendered fighters, or the lost territory. Most of ISKP Facebook accounts are either blocked or inactive. Other social media platforms like Telegram only post irrelevant reports, mainly discussing religious issues.
Looking at the various claims, the major factor that caused fundamental problems for the ISKP in Nangrahar was locals’ resentment against them. It was their rebellion that not only prevented the ISKP from expanding territorial areas, but also was the spark for other actors – the government, US forces and the Taleban – all to simultaneously put pressure on the militants. If ISKP had had the support of local people, it would have been far more difficult for any other party to dislodge them.
Changes of territorial control
As a result of the recent operations, both the Taleban and government forces have made territorial gains. Local journalists told AAN that the government now controls most parts of the lower-lying areas of Nangrahar. The Taleban, in turn, expanded their control to the remote, mountainous parts where ISKP had most of its remaining bases.
As a result of the recent offensives against ISKP, the government controls more territory in Achin, Shinwar, Pachir wa Agam and Momand Dara districts. Government forces now almost entirely control ten out of Nangrahar’s 22 districts (Behsud, Kama, Dara-ye Nur, Batikot, Kot, Shinwar, Dur Baba, Pachir wa Agam, Achin and Momand Dara). In eight other districts (Gushta, Spinghar, Lalpur, Nazyan, Rodad, Kuz Kunar, Deh Bala and Chaparhar), its presence is larger than the Taleban’s. According to a security organisation in the east, the government rules around 70 to 80 per cent of these eight districts. Taleban or Pakistani militant groups, Lashkar-e Islam, Tahrik-e Taleban Pakistan and Jabhat ul-Ahrar, control the remaining parts.
The Taleban control large parts of four districts (Sherzad, Khogyani, Hesarak and Surkhrod). Indeed, the government’s civilian administrations in two districts (Sherzad and Hesarak) operate from the provincial capital Jalalabad (see report here). The security forces in these four districts remain largely in the district centres and nearby villages.
Looking ahead: is this really the end of ISKP in Nangrahar?
At the end, surviving members of ISKP split up, into those who fled into ISKP-controlled areas of Kunar or to Pakistan, and those who surrendered to the Afghan government, with a few small groups still hiding in the high areas of the Spinghar mountains. The organisation could regroup when the pressure on them subsides, but it seems it would need a long time for it to revive its networks, if indeed that is possible.
As to the other players on this particular battlefield, the last few years have shown up the weakness of the Nangrahari Taleban. The ISKP was able to push them out of many parts of Nangrahar in 2015 and even now, after the Taleban claimed victory, it was only because they had deployed forces from other provinces. The Taleban will be unable to keep those forces in Nangrahar permanently. Should ISKP become able to remobilise its fighters for another larger scale counteroffensive, the local Taleban’s ability to defeat them is weak, once all outside fighters are withdrawn. Moreover, the local Taleban also look to be unable to increase their control of territory in the province from the government.
For the Afghan government, Uprising Forces and local support played a crucial role. Given the scale of the atrocities suffered by local people during the ISKP era, they will be vigilant about any attempts at regrouping. Particularly, if the government provides logistical and financial support for these local armed groups and generally proves able to govern more effectively and competently than it was doing when ISKP emerged (for some detail, see this dispatch), it seems unlikely that either the Taleban or the ISKP will seem attractive alternatives.
A second dispatch will look back at ISKP in Kunar.
Edited by Thomas Ruttig, Kate Clark and Christian Bleuer
This article was last updated on 16 Dec 2020
Islamic State Khorasan Province