Two years ago, Pentagon officials said that American forces in the remote reaches of Afghanistan could defeat ISIS's offshoot here by the end of 2017.
This month, American Special Forces in eastern Afghanistan were still fighting, with no end in sight.
During a visit by a New York Times reporter to their dusty army outpost, in the eastern province of Nangarhar, the Americans pointed out the ridges and valleys at the foot of the snow-capped Spin Ghar mountains: There, they noted, was the start of the ISIS’s territory, in some of the most forbidding terrain in Afghanistan.
The extremist group is growing, able to out-recruit its casualties so far, according to military officials. It is well funded by illicit smuggling and other revenue streams. And in the eastern part of the country, ISIS militants are waging a war of terrain that the United States military can — for now — only contain, those officials said.
Interviews with six current and former American officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, indicated that the group is poised to expand its influence if the United States and the Taliban reach a peace settlement. The officials expressed concern that in addition to destabilizing the Afghan government, the group is becoming connected to terrorist plots beyond Afghanistan’s borders.
Deep in Afghanistan, the immediate conclusion has been to try to keep up the pressure through patrols and raids by American and Afghan Special Operations units. But the officials acknowledge that it all amounts to more of a containment effort than anything that could eradicate ISIS loyalists here.
Mission Support Site Jones, on the outskirts of the small village of Deh Bala, is part of the small constellation of Special Forces outposts in Nangarhar.
The Special Forces units are falling back on a counterinsurgency strategy that has been used off and on throughout 18 years of war. That means they are juggling between clearing territory alongside Afghan troops, trying to hold it, and building an Afghan force that could take over security for the district — supposedly while keeping ISIS contained — when the Americans eventually leave.
During a recent meeting at his outpost in Nangarhar Province, the team leader of a Special Forces unit pointed to a map of Deh Bala spread out in front of him.
“They’re always going to hold those mountains,” he said of ISIS. The team leader spoke on the condition of anonymity because the Pentagon insists that members of Special Operations units not disclose their names.
History supports his view: This corner of eastern Afghanistan has sheltered insurgencies for hundreds of years.
Efforts to root out militants in this area are hampered by shifting weather that can quickly close off air support, and by drastic changes in elevation — by thousands of feet — that limit the troops and equipment that can be safely ferried by helicopter.
What began in 2015 as a small group of tribes composed mostly of former Pakistani Taliban militants who pledged allegiance to ISIS and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, soon grew into a loosely connected web of militants and commanders spread throughout the country.
According to American military officials, militants gradually appeared from all over the region, including Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, as well as a trickle of militants who had fought in Iraq and Syria.
In the Afghan offshoot’s early months, ISIS leadership in the Middle East sent money to help it along. But officials say the group has approached self-sufficiency by extorting money from locals along with smuggling timber, drugs and raw earth material, such as lapis lazuli, mined in some of the eastern provinces.
ISIS militants in Afghanistan are paid significantly more per month than their Taliban counterparts, in some regions by hundreds of dollars. And they have been able to keep growing.
There are an estimated 3,000 ISIS militants in Afghanistan, but their relatively low numbers belie the group’s growing support network of facilitators with unclear alliances and its ability to move with relative ease between Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to the officials. In recent months, ISIS cells have appeared in the northern province of Kunduz and the western province of Herat.
But no ISIS cell is more threatening to maintaining stability in Afghanistan than the one in Kabul, the Afghan capital.
ISIS groups there have become increasingly skilled in avoiding detection, the officials said, staging high-profile attacks more frequently since 2016. Last year, it carried out an estimated 24 attacks in Kabul, leaving hundreds dead or wounded.
The New York Times
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