ACHIN, Afghanistan - A recurring rumble of explosions echoes off the barren, boulder-strewn slopes of the Spin Ghar mountains, each ordnance aimed wishfully at redoubts where Islamic State militants are suspected of hiding. Afghan and U.S. special forces listen in on enemy chatter, intercepting dozens of their radio channels. American AC-130 gunships and F-16 fighter jets whir in circles overhead, at low altitude, waiting for strike orders. Soldiers on the ground man the mortars.
The operation against the Islamic State in Khorasan - or ISIS-K, as the Syria-based group's Afghan contingent is known - is now into its fourth month of unremitting warfare. The U.S. military has pledged to "annihilate" the group by year's end, and the redoubled assault has contributed to a spike in U.S. airstrikes to levels not seen in Afghanistan since President Barack Obama's troop surge in 2012. One in five of those strikes is against ISIS-K, despite it controlling only slivers of mountainous territory.
The battle is lopsided, but each day the front line here in Achin district moves back only slightly. Both local intelligence officials and the U.S. military believe that ISIS-K is replenishing its stock of fighters almost as quickly as it loses them. A sense that this may be an indefinite mission has set in.
Soon after its founding in 2014, ISIS-K descended into this district and established it as its stronghold. Entire villages emptied as word of the group's mercilessness spread. Fighters infamously strapped defiant local clerics to explosives and filmed their detonations. For nearly three years, ISIS-K held firm not just in the Spin Ghars but in the vacated villages in the fertile valley beneath them.
In April, the U.S. military dropped its largest non-nuclear bomb, a MOAB - nicknamed "the mother of all bombs" - on a cave complex in one of Achin's valleys, known as the Momand. It is unclear how many fighters, if any, were killed. The MOAB - which felt so forceful that "every ant in the valley must've died," said one villager - was followed by weeks of airstrikes on compounds that ISIS-K fighters had held for two years.
On a recent trip up the valley, the bodies of at least four were still there, lying in abandoned fields overgrown with wild cannabis. The corpses were mostly just bones after months in the sun.
Over the past three years, ISIS-K has succeeded in carrying out ghastly attacks in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. But as Islamic State territory in Iraq and Syria is whittled away, coalition forces here are worried that Afghanistan's notoriously ungovernable eastern provinces could become a safe haven for fleeing fighters and a new staging ground for attacks on the West.
"We believe that ISIS-K is not currently able to launch attacks because they are essentially being hunted," said Capt. William Salvin, spokesman for the U.S. military here. But he did not refute the assessment of a local Afghan intelligence officer in Achin, who spoke on a condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media: In terms of numbers, ISIS-K has not been severely reduced. The battle is looking more like one of attrition.
While the Pentagon maintains that ISIS-K is down to about 1,000 fighters across Afghanistan, from a high of 2,500 in 2015, the Afghan intelligence officer surmised that there were more than 1,000 in Achin district alone.
The fierce conflict also is scattering fighters across a wider swath of the mountainous east, ensuring a longer, more dispersed mission. Last week, the Pentagon announced that a U.S. drone strike killed Abu Sayed, ISIS-K's leader, or emir. That took place in neighboring Konar province, indicating that the fighting has spread at least that far.
Most of ISIS-K's fighters are thought to be Pashtuns, with few, if any, coming from Iraq and Syria. According to Salvin, the United States sees ISIS-K as more of an "authorized franchise of ISIS-main" than the Islamic State's operation in Libya, which is more closely tied to the fighting in the Middle East. Instead, Afghan analysts say, ISIS-K derives much of its support from Pakistan's military establishment.
"In Nangahar, it is Pakistan's game," said Davood Moradian, director of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies, referring to the province in which Achin is located. Pakistan has launched its own military operation against Islamist militants on its side of the Spin Ghar range, but Moradian was skeptical that they shared the goal of the group's elimination.
"Pakistan's military operation against Daesh" - an alternate name for the Islamic State - "is more of a disciplinary mission: Stop your internal disagreements and concentrate on the target we've agreed upon, namely, the Afghan state," he said.
Pakistan has always denied playing a destabilizing role in Afghanistan, but its neighbor's ongoing instability has proved hugely lucrative for Pakistan's military, which has ruled the country for almost half its 70-year existence. George W. Bush's and Barack Obama's administrations gave the Pakistanis a combined $33.4 billion in aid, and there is little evidence their support for Afghan militants has stopped.
Members of the U.S. Congress have been calling for years for a drastic reduction or elimination of security assistance to Pakistan, as well as ending its status as a major non-NATO ally - or even designating it as a state sponsor of terrorism.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has said that the Trump administration's new Afghanistan strategy, expected this month, will have a "regional component," but it is unclear if that means a curtailment of U.S. aid to Pakistan. In fact, a hostile Pakistan might well pose a greater threat to the U.S. mission here.
Even so, exasperation toward Pakistan runs high here.
"That people are even asking the question 'Should the U.S. stop giving money to Pakistan?' shows the silliness of the discourse in Washington," said Moradian. "It is like asking if we should stop giving heroin to an addict. Of course. It is the very first thing you must do. Otherwise, you will keep fighting permutations of the same adversary here for eternity."
During a recent meeting of his full national security team, President Donald Trump reportedly focused on Pakistan's role in harboring Islamist militants, and national security adviser H.R. McMaster pressed for a more punitive approach.
Among the Momand Valley's former residents, the belief that "Pakistan wants to destroy Afghanistan" is near universal. People eagerly share conspiratorial evidence of Pakistan's hand in their calamity. Daesh leaders all speak Punjabi, one of Pakistan's main languages; their long hair and beards are just wigs supplied by the Pakistani government; one man said that he had seen fighters swimming in the Momand River, and one had a big Pakistani flag tattooed on his biceps.
Many of these people's homes were destroyed by U.S. airstrikes because they were suspected of being used by ISIS-K as hideouts. Most shops in Shadal Bazaar, the valley's main market, were reduced to rubble, too, although the fighting is now far enough into the mountains that some butchers and barbers have dared to rebuild.
Yet the Momand Valley possesses a mesmerizing beauty that makes those who fled yearn to return. If they do, they will find the evidence of ISIS-K's presence not just in their ruined homes but in the few that were left standing. ISIS-K converted Kitab Gul's home into a prison, for instance, and the disturbingly small cages in which they locked those accused of petty crimes such as smoking cigarettes are still lying about. The Afghan army has requisitioned Gul's home as a lookout post.
Despite the U.S. bombing of their homes, and despite U.S. support for Pakistan, locals were largely positive about the campaign to "annihilate" ISIS-K.
"They are not Muslim. Their only religion is cruelty, and there is nothing crueler than what they have done to us," said Mir Jamal, a proud but exhausted father of nine who has spent two years loading trucks for meager sums since escaping his village with nothing but the clothes on his back. When fighters swept into the valley, Jamal's brother and elderly father stayed behind to protect their home. They were caught. His brother's forearm was burned with embers from a fire, and he was waterboarded. His father was pitilessly beaten and now barely speaks.
"My father had red cheeks. He prayed five times a day. He had a big chest, and he farmed late into his life," said Jamal, fighting back emotion. "How can we ever accept Daesh?"
WASHINGTON - The White House offered conflicting views Sunday of whether President Trump supports the Russia sanctions legislation in Congress, with his top spokesmen contradicting one another just days after launching plans for a more effective messaging strategy.
If Trump was hoping his communications shake-up would bring a fresh approach for a White House that has struggled to respond to a constant state of turmoil, the debut of the team on the Sunday political talk shows was a rough one. Adding to the confusion, one of Trump's lawyers appeared to contradict his new top spokesman on whether Trump has been discussing his power to issue presidential pardons.
Trump's top communication aides set out to try to present a united front two days after the president added New York financier Anthony Scaramucci as communications director and promoted Sarah Huckabee Sanders to press secretary after Sean Spicer resigned unexpectedly. Trump has fumed for months over the FBI probe into his campaign's contacts with Russia, angered that the nonstop media coverage has overshadowed his achievements and stalled his agenda.
But the key spokesmen appeared to be operating from different playbooks. Featured on competing Sunday shows, Sanders and Scaramucci contradicted one other on the Russia sanctions bill that congressional leaders announced over the weekend.
"The administration is supportive of being tough on Russia, particularly in putting these sanctions in place," Sanders said on ABC's "This Week." "We were able to work with the House and Senate, and the administration is happy with the ability to do that and make those changes that were necessary, and we support where the legislation is now."
Asked about the sanctions almost simultaneously on CNN's "State of the Union," Scaramucci noted he'd only been on the job for a few days.
"You've got to ask President Trump that. My guess is that he's going to make that decision shortly," he said, adding that as far as he knew Trump "hasn't made the decision yet to sign that bill one way or the other."
The result was a team that still looked uncertain about how to characterize the president's position on a significant matter that has been central to his first six months in office. The White House had opposed Congress's initial attempt to impose additional economic sanctions on Moscow for its meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign, raising questions over Trump's relationship with the Kremlin amid the mounting FBI probe.
Later Sunday, a senior administration official, asked by The Washington Post to clarify the White House's position, said that the bill's latest version included additional economic sanctions on North Korea and addressed economic concerns raised by the U.S. business sector.
"The administration supports sanctions on Russia and Iran and supports the direction the bill is headed, but won't weigh in conclusively until there is a final piece of legislation and no more changes are being made," the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to explain the president's thinking.
Trump brought Scaramucci, who had been a fierce defender of the president on cable news shows, into the West Wing to help shore up a press shop that he believed was doing a poor job of defending him and explaining his message to the public. Among the president's strategies to recover his momentum is a trip to Youngstown, Ohio, for a campaign-rally style speech on Tuesday ahead of an expected Senate vote on efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
However, historians said presidents often make the mistake of conflating a messaging problem with their real challenge - a political crisis. Trump, consumed with rage over the FBI probe, has lashed out time and again on social media and in interviews, causing himself new legal and political problems.
By late Sunday afternoon, Trump made clear that he does not intend to mute his attacks on his rivals.
"As the phony Russian Witch Hunt continues, two groups are laughing at this excuse for a lost election taking hold, Democrats and Russians!" he wrote on Twitter shortly after arriving back at the White House after spending the morning at Trump National Golf Club in Loudoun County.
Scaramucci has no communications experience, and his past political associations did not make him an obvious ally for Trump. He was a fundraiser for President Barack Obama's campaign in 2008, and he supported Republicans Scott Walker and then Jeb Bush in the 2016 campaign, before jumping to Trump after his earlier favorites dropped out of the GOP primary race.
After taking the White House job, Scaramucci announced he would delete hundreds of tweets that showed he had criticized Trump and held liberal views on gun control, immigration and other issues.
Though he won some good reviews from reporters after fielding questions in the White House briefing room Friday, he took some heat on social media Sunday when he made an awkward joke on CNN asking Sanders for them to keep using the same "hair and makeup person" - which some viewers took as a comment on her appearance.
Scaramucci later clarified his statement, saying he was referring to his look and not Sanders's.
Sanders said in an email to The Washington Post that Scaramucci was complimenting the makeup artist for doing a good job.
"Nothing else should be read into it," she said.
Yet Trump reportedly admired Scaramucci's forceful appearances on cable news shows defending the administration and was particularly impressed that he had forced CNN to retract a story that erroneously connected him to a Russian investment fund.
Spicer was said to have lobbied against Trump's hiring of Scaramucci and resigned in protest after the hiring Friday.
The role of the White House communications director has traditionally been to develop longer term strategies for winning public support for the president's policies and agenda, while the press secretary responds to news events in real time.
On that score, Scaramucci has not had much time to add his influence. And it was not just on the Russia sanctions bill that the White House's messaging was muddled Sunday.
Last week, the Post reported that Trump and his legal team were exploring his powers to pardon aides, family members and, potentially, even himself as special counsel Robert S. Mueller III continues to oversee the Russia probe. On Saturday, Trump wrote on Twitter that he has "complete power to pardon," an assertion that some interpreted to mean his advisers had said he could, in fact, pardon himself.
On "This Week," one of Trump's attorneys, Jay Sekulow, described that tweet as "rather unremarkable."
"The president has the authority to pardon," Sekulow said, though he emphasized that Trump's legal team has not even discussed that question with the president.
"We have not, and I continue to not, have conversations with the president of the United States regarding pardons," Sekulow said.
Sekulow's comments, however, seem at odds with other members of Trump's team. On "Fox News Sunday," Scaramucci said he and the president had, in fact, discussed last week how far his pardoning authority extends.
"I'm in the Oval Office with the president last week, we're talking about that - he brought that up," Scaramucci said. But he added that Trump made clear that he "doesn't have to be pardoned. There's nobody around him that has to be pardoned. He was just making the statement about the power of pardons."