KABUL — The Islamic State group’s main stronghold in eastern Afghanistan collapsed in recent weeks, according to American and Afghan officials, following years of concerted military offensives from US and Afghan forces and, more recently, the Taliban.
President Ashraf Ghani recently claimed that the Islamic State, often known as ISIS, had been “obliterated” in Nangarhar Province, the group’s haven in the east. And in an interview in Kabul on Sunday, General Austin S. Miller, the commander of all US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said the group’s loss of the terrain it stubbornly held for few years would severely restrict their recruitment and planning.
But Miller also warned that ISIS could remain a threat in Afghanistan even if it does not hold territory, with attention required to track militants on the move and the group’s remaining urban cells.
“It was instructive in Iraq and Syria — when you take away big terrain from them, they move into smaller cells and they pop up in strange places,” Miller said.
Miller’s reluctance to affirm any type of major victory over the offshoot is indicative of the broader inroads Islamic State cells have made in Afghanistan — and of a long history of militant groups in Afghanistan bouncing back after seemingly unsustainable losses.
Western and Afghan officials see a combination of factors that led to the Islamic State’s losses in the east, forcing many of the fighters to either move or surrender. One Western official estimated that the group’s strength was now reduced to around 300 fighters in Afghanistan, from an estimated 3,000 earlier this year.
The Islamic State’s presence in Afghanistan has been cited by military officials and lawmakers as one of the reasons to keep US troops in Afghanistan following any peace settlement with the Taliban. Those officials have long argued that the Taliban would not be able to defeat the group.
What particularly worried officials was the Islamic State’s continued ability to plan attacks and recruit within Kabul, the Afghan capital city, despite intensified campaigns against the group there.
Some of the recruits involved in the planning or execution of deadly bombings there came from the city’s top schools, officials say.
US officials have been divided over how much global threat the Islamic State in Afghanistan poses. While military officials emphasize the group’s ambitions, some intelligence officials believe the group remains more of a threat within the immediate region.