The U.S. military’s highest-ranking general in the Afghanistan War acknowledged the Islamic State’s growing presence in the country on Tuesday, telling the Senate Armed Services Committee that the group is “operationally emergent” and focused on taking over a specific city in the eastern part of the country.
Army Gen. John Campbell said the Islamic State is concentrated most significantly in Nangarhar province, in the southeastern corner of the country along the Pakistan border. The group is growing by recruiting members of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a branch of the Taliban that is focused primarily across the border in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan.
“The issue right now is that the Taliban and Daesh continue to fight each other, and so they’re going at it… inside of there,” Campbell said, using one of the alternate names for Islamic State fighters. “A lot of the Daesh, as we see, continue to be disenfranchised Taliban that maybe see Daesh as a way to gain more media, more resources, so they kind of changed T-shirts, raised a different flag.”
The general’s assessment marks a change from what he told the Senate in February, as Campbell acknowledged Tuesday. Testifying on Capitol Hill early this year, Campbell said the Islamic State had a “nascent” presence in Afghanistan. Other U.S. military officials in Afghanistan said earlier this year that the Islamic State’s presence was “aspirational at best.”
A Pentagon report to Congress released in June also addressed the issue, saying that the Islamic State was looking to expand in Afghanistan, but had so far launched only limited recruiting efforts.
Campbell said Tuesday that the Islamic State has shown up in provinces ranging from Helmand in the south to Sari Pul in the north. But the group is focused primarily in Nangarhar, and wants to make the city of Jalalabad there its capital, he added. Strategically located at the intersection of the Kabul and Kunar rivers about 90 miles east of Kabul, it is also home to a major military installation at the Jalalabad Airport.
Citing interviews with refugees, Reuters reported in June that the Islamic State had seized substantial territory in Nangarhar, with hundreds of people pledging to join the group and burning poppy fields that finance the Taliban’s military operations. More recently, the Islamic State released a video in which it beheads a man in the province, claiming that he is a spy.
The Afghan army announced last month that it was launching a broad operation in Nangarhar to flush out insurgents. It is expected to target both Taliban and Islamic State militants, who continue to fight each other.