ACHIN, Afghanistan — For nearly four years, U.S. and Afghan forces unleashed hundreds of punishing airstrikes in this remote corner of mountainous eastern Afghanistan. The strikes transformed clusters of sparse farming villages, cratering dirt roads and, in some areas, leaving every third mud house demolished.
The target: the Islamic State, whose offshoot in Afghanistan was the group’s most deadly branch outside Iraq and Syria.
By November, the offensive appeared to be a success. The group’s deadly attacks in the Afghan capital have largely subsided, and hundreds of civilians who fled villages here have returned. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani triumphantly declared the Islamic State had been “obliterated.”
But it has now become clear that military operations also scattered many fighters they aimed to defeat: The group’s senior leadership fled further into the Spin Ghar mountains, crossing into Pakistan or pushing north into Konar province’s more rugged terrain. Others simply went into hiding. Afghan officials estimate that hundreds of Islamic State fighters continue to operate across the country, raising the dangerous potential for a resurgence.
Interviews with Afghan and U.S. officials and seven self-described Islamic State members now in Afghan custody paint a picture of a group that has a history of persevering despite territorial and leadership losses, thanks in part to a sophisticated recruitment system and the use of extreme violence to control civilian populations.
“They have not been eliminated,” said Ahmad Ali Hazrat, the head of Nangahar’s provincial council, who cited intelligence reporting that hundreds of Islamic State fighters previously based in Nangahar villages moved into urban areas during the military fight. “They have suffered defeats. Now we wait and see.”
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Originally rising from the chaos of Syria’s civil war, the Islamic State expanded its reach into Iraq in 2014, declaring a caliphate roughly the size of Britain stretching across the two countries. It would take four years for U.S.-backed ground forces in Syria and Iraq to slowly claw that territory back.
In Afghanistan, the group’s branch carried out some of the war’s most brutal attacks targeting civilians, killing more than 1,200 between 2016 and 2018, according to analysis of U.N. reports. But under increased military pressure, over the past year, the number of civilians killed and injured in Islamic State attacks decreased by nearly half in the first nine months of 2019 compared to the same period in 2018.
Between military operations on Afghanistan’s eastern edge and raids in Kabul, Afghan and U.S. forces swept up hundreds of fighters.
“The key there is making sure you’re capturing who’s leaving,” the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Austin S. Miller, said in an interview in December about the next steps in the Islamic State fight. “Are you talking to them all, and who are they?”
In interviews, Islamic State militants detained at an Afghan intelligence facility in Kabul detailed savvy recruitment systems that appeal to Afghans across diverse social, economic and geographical backgrounds. And on the ground in remote villages, fighters held at a Nangahar detention facility described years of relatively stable command despite an air campaign so intense some local emirs had to be replaced every three to six months.
‘The real caliphate’
The Islamic State announced its expansion into Afghanistan in 2015, appointing Pakistani militants as the group’s local leaders and calling on fighters to join from the “Khorasan,” a historical region encompassing northeastern Iran, southern Turkmenistan and northern Afghanistan.
Recruiters described the group’s mission as a purer form of jihad, at a time when the Taliban was struggling to justify taking steps to open up to the rest of the world and eventually enter peace talks with American officials. The Islamic State’s ideology calls for the establishment of a global caliphate through a worldwide war that would kill or enslave all those who do not adhere to an extremist interpretation of Islam.
“The Islamic State has an effective recruiting tool because their ideology is very simple,” said Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Roggio said the message “stands out from the other groups” such as the Taliban, whose ideology can appear fuzzy in contrast. “It’s a message that allows [the Islamic State] to get the most radical believers on their side.”
The message resonated with both ends of Afghan society. Poor, disadvantaged youth were targeted to become foot soldiers and suicide bombers, according to Afghan officials, detainees and experts. Educated urbanites were recruited for logistical, financial or communication roles.
U.S. officials now predict military losses will dampen the group’s appeal, but experts say the grievances and aspirations that Islamic State recruiters tapped into persist.
Abdul Wahed Ebadi, 25, from a middle-class Kabul family, was introduced to Islamic State propaganda in 2014 by a friend he met at a religious school.
Ebadi began regularly watching Islamic State videos, meeting with a small group of other young men to download and read the group’s magazine and manuals. The next year, he was on his way to Nangahar province to pledge allegiance to the group.
“We were convinced this was the real caliphate,” he said.
Ebadi spoke to The Washington Post from inside the National Directorate of Security’s detention center in Kabul. He confessed while in detention to participating in terrorist acts, and an investigation is ongoing. The interviews took place in the presence of two Afghan security officials.
Ebadi said he stayed in Nangahar for two months, training during the day and sleeping in a tent alongside other recruits his age at night.
When he returned to Kabul, he said, he was a mid-level Islamic State operative, working in a small underground cell facilitating dozens of attacks against civilians and security forces, including the 2018 bombing in Kabul that killed nine journalists — the deadliest attack on journalists in Afghanistan in more than a decade.
When he was not planning and carrying out attacks, Ebadi studied Islamic law at a private university in Kabul and ran a small grocery store to support his family.
In Nangahar, fighters from Pakistan and elsewhere arrived in 2015 to claim the territory that would serve as the group’s training ground for Ebadi and other recruits.
Abdul Mateen, 45, watched the organization grow around him as one of the first Islamic State members there. Originally from Pakistan, he joined the Islamic State in Afghanistan in 2015, when his commander pledged allegiance to the group. Hundreds of recruits flocked to the province each year, he said.
Mateen spoke to The Washington Post from an Afghan detention center in Jalalabad. Three Afghan intelligence officers were present during the interview.
He said he worked for the group’s notoriously brutal religious police, enforcing prayer, settling disputes and destroying marijuana crops that many farmers in the area depended on to support their families. The extremists consider marijuana sinful.
From the beginning, even when Islamic State members numbered in just the dozens, they received specific instructions for maintaining order from leaders in Iraq and Syria, he recalled.
“Originally the books arrived in Arabic,” he said. “We had to translate them.”
And when the campaign of drone and airstrikes targeting leadership ramped up in 2015, Mateen said it did not disrupt operations. He ultimately surrendered to government forces when they retook the territory in November.
U.S. officials say they expect the Islamic State’s loss of physical territory in Nangahar to slow recruitment, but it will also mean the military fight needs to shift to where fighters are regrouping.
“We’ve gained some time now on the adversary,” said a U.S. official, referring to recent territorial gains. But he said that the Islamic State has retained important institutional knowledge where they have regrouped, in places such as neighboring Konar.
“Their capacity to conduct high-profile attacks is lowered. It doesn’t mean it’s diminished completely,” he said. The official was authorized to speak to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity.
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The territorial losses have “frustrated” the group, he said, making it harder to communicate, access funds and gather. But, he warned, “we know that the will exists.”
Miller, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said “overall it’s a positive” that the Islamic State lost key territory.
“The question is,” he said, “can we and the Afghan forces adjust to now start getting into places where they may be moving to?”
‘We never saw such evil’
As civilians have trickled back into territory once held by the Islamic State, a picture is emerging of how the group used a campaign of extreme violence to consolidate control of villages it later transformed into busy training and logistical hubs. The group is now using the same approach to bolster its forces in Konar province, 50 miles to the north.
“They came with their whole families. First, they said they were refugees,” said Maman Malik Namas, an elder from the village of Yarmina.
Accustomed to living in a province rife with fractured armed groups — many moving freely back and forth from neighboring Pakistan — Namas said residents initially paid little mind to the men who began appearing in 2013. They largely kept to themselves and later began pledging allegiance to the Islamic State.
“Then they started their activities,” Namas said. The fighters rounded up men with connections to the Afghan government and the security forces; after that, they began seizing village elders. In Namas’s village alone, 100 people were taken, he said.
A wave of bloody public executions followed. “They didn’t trust us,” Namas said. “They thought everyone was a spy.”
Fearing that his family, including two sons who work for the Afghan military, could be swept up in the arrests, he fled with his three wives, 20 children and dozens of grandchildren to a half-finished building on the outskirts of Jalalabad.
There, he heard that his cousin was one of 10 men executed by Islamic State fighters in a now-notorious August 2015 killing. The prisoners were placed in front of a row of land mines and forced to kneel on the explosives. They were killed instantly. Graphic video of the scene was circulated on social media.
“We never saw such evil,” Namas said.
Nangahar was prime real estate for the extremists: large swaths of lawless territory with natural resources, all just a few hours’ drive from the capital, Kabul. But the group was operating with a relatively small fighting force — about 5,000 fighters at its height in mid-2018, according to the U.S. official.
Without enough boots on the ground to protect busy supply routes that were used to ferry weapons, recruits and fighters seeking martyrdom, the Islamic State turned to intimidation to exert control.
Khadi Gul, a farmer who estimates he is in his 30s, decided to flee his village in a Nangahar valley in eastern Afghanistan the day Islamic State fighters beheaded three soldiers captured at a nearby checkpoint.
After decapitating the men, the extremists paraded the heads through the village on the hoods of their vehicles, calling residents to come out and look at the spectacle, Gul said.
“They called to the women: ‘You can boil these heads of the infidels for food.’ After that, Daesh played football with them,” Gul said, using an alternate name for the militant group. He and his family fled days later.
They returned after the Islamic State was expelled from their valley two years ago. Their belongings had been trashed and their marijuana crops burned, but they counted themselves lucky their home was still standing, not hit by an airstrike like many of their neighbors’ houses.
Women are again allowed to work in the gardens, some schools have reopened, and marijuana fields grow tall and thick in patches that line the valley’s main road. Government forces maintain relative security in part of retaken Achin, but they do not enforce a ban on growing illicit drugs.
But many of the fighters who fled Gul’s province are reinforcing logistical hubs and receiving recruits to the north in Konar, according to local lawmakers.
“Once they get settled in Konar, no one can defeat them,” said Din Mohammad Sapai, a provincial council member. Sapai said the province is home to some of the country’s most treacherous terrain, with thick forests and deep mountain caves. He called on the government to move more military resources to his province.
But in Nangahar, Gul described hard-fought military victories as precarious. On a recent afternoon, he pointed overhead toward the low hum of an American drone that could be heard hovering in the sky above his field.
“You hear that sound?” he said.
“They can see you, me and Daesh,” he said. “It’s true they shot some of the Daesh fighters, but not all of them. And if the Americans leave, for sure Daesh will come back.”
O’Grady and Hassan reported from Kabul. Aziz Tassal contributed to this report from Achin.
Photo editing by Olivier Laurent.