War & Peace

The Battle for Mamand: ISKP under strain, but not yet defeated 


A scene during the US-Afghan Operation Hamza in Mamand Valley. Photo: social media Facebook page run by Shinwari students.

In recent weeks, the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) has lost a significant part of its stronghold in Nangrahar as well as several senior commanders and its overall leader, Sheikh Abdul Hasib. Its losses have been mounting steadily since early April when American and Afghan special forces intensified their campaign against the group. This included dropping the largest, non-nuclear bomb in the US arsenal on an ISKP-held network of caves in Achin district on 13 April 2017. AAN’s Borhan Osman looks at the offensive in detail, including ISKP responses. He also assesses the US goal of ‘defeating’ ISKP this year and asks what defeat of such a group would look like.

 

The rolling back of ISKP in Nangrahar – a summary of events

ISKP’s control of territory in Nangrahar reached its peak in summer 2015 when it became the dominant insurgent group in eight of the province’s 22 districts. (For detail on why it was so successful in this province, see AAN reporting here and here.) ISKP had overrun large swathes in the districts which lie along the Spin Ghar mountain range to the south of the provincial capital, Jalalabad, mostly from the Taleban. Most of these districts are close to or on the border with Pakistan’s tribal agencies: to the south-east of Jalalabad, they are Achin, Kot, Nazyan and Bati Kot and to the south-west, Deh Bala (also called Haska Mena), Khogyani, Sherzad, Pachir wa Agam and Chaparhar, whose borders begin at the outskirts of Jalalabad city. ISKP never managed to capture any of the district centres, although it was twice close to overrunning the district centres of Achin and Deh Bala.

Since then, the Taleban have fought to take back territory and the group has also been pounded by US air strikes. ISKP territory had shrunk to four districts by the end of 2015, with territory mainly re-taken by the Taleban. ISKP then dug in through 2016 in all its remaining districts, that is, Achin, Kot and Nazyan in the south-eastern districts (Bati Kot had returned to Taleban control), as well as Deh Bala in the south-west. ISKP’s hold over these districts looked firm until mid-March, or the beginning of the Afghan spring 2017, when US and Afghan special forces stepped up their attacks against it.

In early April 2017, these combined forces launched a new campaign dubbed Operation Hamza, which, according to the US military, was targeted against ISKP not only in Nangrahar, but also in Kunar. In Kunar, the group has not yet established definitive territorial control, but it has actively recruited from members of militant groups there, including from the Afghan Taleban. Kunar has also served as a place of retreat for ISKP members when pressed in southern Nangrahar.

Nevertheless, the group is still most entrenched in southern Nangrahar, and particularly strongly in Achin and Deh Bala districts. It has turned Achin’s Mamand Valley into its command base with the adjacent Pekha Valley, to the east of Achin district centre, next in strategic value. Both these valleys border Pakistan’s Khyber Agency, from where, according to numerous local residents AAN has spoken to, the group receives weapons and ammunition which arrive on the backs of mules.

US-Afghan forces take the battle to ISKP’s heartland

The offensive by US and Afghan special forces, which has been taking place since mid-March 2017, and especially since the launch of Operation Hamza in early April, has focused on these two valleys and the surrounding areas. Ground offensives and night raids have been coupled with heavy air strikes by the US military. Missiles launched from the US military base at Jalalabad airfield have also hit targets in and around the two valleys. These precision-guided munitions, described by locals as ‘cruise missiles’ and often fired in batches of a few dozens, have become a frequently used element of the campaign. The offensive has had a tangible impact on ISKP, appearing to have severely weakened the group in its stronghold.

What has added to the pressure on ISKP’s Mamand stronghold is not only the penetration of US and Afghan forces into Pekha to the east, but also the group’s loss of Kot district to the west. Kot has been almost entirely cleared of ISKP as a result of this year’s campaign. The loss of Kot has, for the first time in several years, confined ISKP to three districts. Afghan forces, mostly local militias made up of the so-called uprising forces and Afghan Local Police, have established bases and checkposts in the newly captured territory to consolidate the government’s hold there. Most of the southern and eastern parts of the district, which have long been under the control of ISKP, are deserted after most of the local population fled and settled around Jalalabad. The displacement had been happening since 2015, but, according to residents of the district, sharply increased when the US-Afghan operations intensified in mid-March.

By losing Kot district, ISKP has not only seen its territory shrink, but also suffered a huge logistical setback: an important supply route which connected its eastern districts with its western ones has been cut. Kot was the main way for it to get weapons from Achin and Nazyan, on the border, to Deh Bala and further westward, including to Chaparhar on the outskirts of Jalalabad. ISKP, according to local residents in all these districts, would re-load ammunition, which had arrived by mule from Khyber agency, in Pakistan, to Achin and Nazyan, onto trucks and other vehicles to take it to Deh Bala. Now, with Afghan forces deployed in Kot, there is no longer a vehicle route from the Achin-Nazyan border available for ISKP to supply its fighters in Deh Bala.

While Kot might have been relatively easy for Afghan and US forces to capture, the two valleys, Mamand and Pekha, in neighbouring Achin district, have proved the most difficult. ISKP has been able to entrench itself deep into these valleys due both to the geography – the hard, mountainous terrain – and to the local society, which has been weakened and fractured (see this AAN analysis). ISKP fighters have occupied villages in the two valleys, often after forcing local people out. With the onset of Operation Hamza, the US and Afghan forces moved to capture the two valleys through ground offensives supported by air strikes. Getting into the Mamand Valley required passing through a complex network of caves that was situated at the valley entrance, in the Asadkhel area. The caves had been formed over decades by miners digging out slate, and ISKP was using them as bunkers; the caves protected the fighters from air strikes, but also acted as staging points from which to attack the advancing enemy.

According to Mamandis who spoke to AAN, getting across the Asadkhel area was hard for the US and Afghan forces as ISKP fighters positioned within the bomb-proof caves would come out in unexpected places to ambush the advancing forces. The US military bombed the caves repeatedly in the first week of Operation Hamza, but the munitions could not get through the rock and earth to destroy the cave complex below. On 13 April 2017, the US decided to loose a Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB), nick-named ‘the mother of all bombs’, on the cave complex. This paved the way for the American and Afghan forces to get into the valley to launch a full offensive against ISKP.

The mother of all bombs and the death of the ISKP amir

The US and Afghan forces had managed to enter the other strategic valley, Pekha, during the week before the MOAB was dropped. The destruction of the Asadkhel caves also then allowed US-Afghan forces to enter Mamand, which is the more important stronghold for ISKP.

The US-Afghan forces’ progress into the two valleys has been described by local residents (who had left their homes, but still remain abreast of the situation on the ground through speaking to those few people still left in or around the area) as “snail-paced, but consistent.” They described how it often took the US and Afghan special forces two or three days to capture an ISKP village due to the severity of the fighting. In some parts of the valleys, ISKP has mined public routes and fields, which is further slowing down the progress of Afghan and US forces. As of mid-May 2017, more than half of the two valleys were still under the control of ISKP, but Afghan and US forces were continuing to steadily to advance.

As well as losing territory, ISKP has also been losing leaders and fighters. Since mid-March 2017, four senior commanders have been killed, including the latest amir (he took over in early August 2016), Sheikh Abdul Hasib, on 27 April. Between mid-March and mid-May, it also lost, according to rough estimates by local residents in whose homes the militants had been staying, about 300 members. The residents who spoke to AAN have long resettled in Jalalabad, but remain in touch with people still left in these areas, or by the occasional visits of relatives. They knew precisely, by name and location, the ISKP commanders who lived in their homes and, more broadly, in their villages. Although, sometimes they just repeated rumours that could not be corroborated after cross-checking and further questioning, they are still the most neutral and possibly best informed sources on developments in their areas. One caveat: their account of the ISKP death toll needs to be taken with a pinch of salt unless those who have been killed come from their area who they know personally or by reputation. It is less easy to ascertain the deaths of foreign militants because of the absence of nuance and details which help reassure a researcher that the account is true. These might be funerals held, graves dug or people knowing relatives in what is a well-connected society.

One notable batch of ISKP casualties took place during the operation that targeted Abdul Hasib on 27 April. Residents described that operation as lengthy, intensive and complex. It lasted several hours, with heavy bombing and the parachuting of US special forces and Afghan commandos into the heart of ISKP territory to conduct raids. The operation involved almost an entire night of close-range fighting in several villages. Local residents put the number of those killed in this operation at over 30; they spoke of the fighting men and their families together, although without knowing the details of children and women killed. They had not noticed the death of Abdul Hasib, most likely because he was not a known or prominent figure, locally. Habib came from Logar and therefore had no interaction with the locals in Nangarhar before his joining to ISKP.

The news of the ISKP amir’s death was made public by the US military on 7 May 2017. Another commander killed in the same operation was commander from Pakistan’s Orakzai tribal agency, who was known to the locals only by his nom de guerre, Dahshatgar (meaning ‘terrorist’, in Urdu). ISKP’s FM radio station, Khilafat Ghag, on 28 April reported that about 100 people had been killed and wounded as a result of the air strikes of 27 April. The group’s broadcasters described the victims as members of muhajir families. Muhajir means ‘migrant’, but is used here as a religious term for those leaving their homes for the sake of jihad or to escape repression, from which it can be understood that the radio station was referring to the families of the foreign and/or Pakistani militants who had settled in the homes of the local residents. The radio station aired interviews with those it said were relatives of the victims, including children, who spoke of losing their mothers and younger brothers and sisters in the air strikes.

The death of Abdul Hasib dealt a significant blow to ISKP as the group had already been struggling to find replacement leaders after a succession of them had been killed (more detail on which will come in a subsequent dispatch). The ascension of Abdul Hasib, a little-known figure, to the overall leadership in early August 2016 was itself witness to the fact that all the prominent commanders of the group, indeed the entire first-tier leadership, had already been killed. They included about a dozen senior commanders and leaders. While the death of Hasib was important in terms of its impact on morale and the symbolic loss of an amir, he had not been a compelling or impressive leader. He was more a Salafi-jihadist ideologue who inspired fighters with his high-flying speeches and visions of the future. He had not possessed particularly remarkable military skills. Now, as Abdul Hasib is gone, the discussion for his succession seems to have begun with the Aslam Faruqi, a nom de guerre for a mid-level commander from Orakzai agency, tipped as the most likely successor.

Pressed in the east, ISKP spreads westward

At the same time as coming under increased pressure in Achin and Kot, however, ISKP has made considerable advances into another district, Chaparhar, which is adjacent to Jalalabad and has long been contested. The group captured almost half of Chaparhar in a sudden and coordinated attack against the Taleban on 2 and 3 April 2017. ISKP claimed to have killed 30 Taleban in the fighting, although Taleban sources speaking to AAN only admitted to losing a dozen fighters. With the district centre having always remained under the government’s control, the rest of the district has changed hands between ISKP and Taleban several times over the past two years. It had the highest density of pro-ISKP Salafi fighters which made it difficult for the Taleban to establish solid control, as reported earlier by AAN. It was also one of the districts that saw the earliest defections of Taleban fighters to ISKP, in late 2014 and early 2015.

In the meantime, ISKP’s control over most of the tiny Nazyan district, that neighbours both Kot and Achin, as well as over Deh Bala district further southwest, has remained intact. ISKP is largely in control of the countryside in both the districts with the government confined mainly to the district centres. In Nazyan, the majority of the militants are members of a smaller and older group, Lashkar-e Islam, which has its origins in Pakistan’s Khyber Agency just across the border from Nazyan, but has been staying in Nangarhar for several years. The group, ideologically similar to the Pakistani Taleban, is led by Mangal Bagh, who has been an ally of ISKP since the latter’s emergence (read more about Lashkar-e Islam here). His group seems to have been tasked with keeping control of Nazyan, ruling there as a proxy of ISKP, thus making the district ISKP territory by extension. In Deh Bala, where ISKP is mainly made up of local militants, most of whom are former members of the Afghan Taleban, the group’s grip is also still tight. In both these districts, occasional US air strikes have targeted the group’s members, but they have not yet had to withstand a concerted operation against them. This may be to come.

‘Defeating ISKP’ in 2017: an achievable goal for the Americans?

The launching of Operation Hamza came in the wake of the US military announcing  its goal of “eliminating” ISKP by the end of 2017. The commander of US forces in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson,  has since repeatedly vowed to “defeat” ISKP in 2017.

It is the intent of defeating ISKP within a specific time-frame that makes Operation Hamza distinct from previous, similar operations conducted against ISKP. American and Afghan forces have, since the summer of 2015, undertaken several concentrated offensives against ISKP with ground and air components, although possibly less intense than the current one. In almost all these operations, ISKP lost parts of its turf and a number of its fighters, but the common pattern that emerged in the aftermath of these operations was not long-lasting loss for the group; rather, it demonstrated its resilience. ISKP usually bounced back after the campaigns subsided. It would recapture territory as the Afghan forces, often the Afghan National Police and ‘uprising militias’, that were supposed to hold the territory would retreat in the face of its counter-offensive. This has been the case in Achin, Kot and Deh Bala districts. The only areas where ISKP could not do this has been when it lost land to the Taleban, in the districts of Bati Kot, Khogyani and Pachir wa Agam.

With the public avowal by the US military that it will eliminate or defeat ISKP through Operation Hamza, it remains to be seen what the pattern will be this time – and also what the Americans mean by ‘defeat’.

Supposing the advances of US and Afghan forces continue and Operation Hamza targets ISKP in the whole of Nangrahar, dislodging the group from all these areas would take a long time. Moreover, if the Americans want to deny ISKP the opportunity to come back to areas it once ruled, the ANSF must be able to hold territory. If ISKP could be completely stripped of a physical foothold, there would be huge consequences, both to its morale and capabilities. It has been the control of territory that has distinguished the ISKP in Nangrahar from most other Islamic State allied groups in Afghanistan

However, denying ISKP the space to rule would not necessarily amount to ‘defeat’, as long as it has at least a few hundred members and enjoys some measure of continuing appeal. Dismantling ISKP from its physical base could just force it to change tactics, making it a clandestine, hit-and-run group which, for example, could shift its focus even more towards urban areas. If it could transform itself into a clandestine network without a physical base where it could be bombed, it would become far less easy to deal with.

If defeating ISKP means not just taking its territory, but also killing a large number of its members, with the aim of eliminating or at least minimising its ability to launch attacks in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region, then the goal might also be elusive. The first tier leadership of the group has already been eliminated and, according to the US military’s estimates), 75 per cent of the group’s fighters have also been killed. It has nonetheless been able to launch two major assaults in Kabul since March. One of the attacks claimed by the group was the massive and coordinated assault by several suicide bombers against the military hospital in the highly fortified Wazir Akbar Khan neighbourhood on 8 March 2017, which killed about 50 people. The other attack took place in an even more secure and important area in a neighbourhood close to the US embassy, the defence ministry and the presidential palace in Shashdarak on 12 April 2017; this killed eight Afghan civilians and wounded two US soldiers (a media report here). ISKP is thus apparently still able to carry out attacks in urban centres.

In addition to the Kabul attacks mentioned earlier, the group has carried out two attacks in Herat and Jalalabad more recently. In Herat, a bomb attached to a motorcycle exploded in an area predominantly inhabited by Shias on 12 May 2017. The explosion near a bakery killed six people and ISKP claimed responsibility for it, saying the target was the Shia community. (This incident was not widely reported in the media and some media outlets reported the incident as a gas cylinder exploding.) In Jalalabad, ISKP suicide bombers attacked the provincial branch of the state radio and television office on 17 May. Six people were killed in a three-hour gunfight that ensued after the attackers stormed the building. ISKP released details of only two attackers, but provincial officials said the attack was carried out by four people.

In a nutshell, the ongoing US-Afghan operation that has cost ISKP many members, most of its leadership and a great deal of territory, has put the group under significant strain. It will be difficult, this time, for it to recover its former strength any time soon. However, dismantling the group in a way that makes it unable to launch attacks or impossible for it to re-emerge is not so assured. ISKP may well continue to recruit fighters, step up its appeal and propaganda efforts, launch occasional attacks on urban centres and continue to be a particularly nasty, albeit still marginal, insurgent actor.

Edited by Kate Clark and Thomas Ruttig

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Thematic Category: War & Peace