The U.S. military is lending more muscle to the fights in Afghanistan against Islamic State (IS) terrorists in the north and against Taliban insurgents to the south and west.
The push comes as part of intensified efforts against both groups as Afghanistan seeks to root out IS and persuade the Taliban to come to the negotiating table.
Officials say both efforts appear to be paying off, especially in the north, where strikes Friday appear to have killed the northern commander of the Islamic State’s Afghan affiliate.
Afghan military officials Saturday confirmed the death of IS-Khorasan’s Qari Hekmatullah in a strike in the Darzab district of Jowzjan province, an area effectively controlled by IS.
Provincial Governor Maulvi Latifullah told VOA that a close aide of Hekmatullah had also been killed in the strike. He said that the two were buried in the middle of the night in a nearby village and a few members of the group attended their funeral.
It was unclear whether the strike that killed Hekmatullah was carried out by Afghan or U.S.-coalition forces. A spokesperson with U.S. Forces-Afghanistan was not able to confirm Hekmatullah had indeed been killed but said operations in the area were heating up.
“We are conducting a series of intensive operations in Jowzjan and across all of northern Afghanistan to defeat IS-K,” U.S. Forces-Afghanistan spokeswoman Colonel Lisa Garcia told VOA.
Hekmatullah, formerly a member of the Taliban who helped to found IS in Afghanistan, was just the latest high-ranking IS-Khorasan commander to have been killed as part of counterterror operations in the country.
IS-Khorasan leader Abu Sayed was killed in a U.S. airstrike in July 2017 in Kunar province.
Sayed had taken over from the previous emir, Abdul Hasib, who died in April 2017 following what U.S. officials described as a brutal, three-hour firefight in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province.
At the time, top U.S. military officials expressed confidence the fight against IS in Afghanistan was going “in the right direction.” But since then, some Afghan officials have expressed growing concerns.
In December, Afghan officials told VOA that IS had as many as 3,000 foreign fighters in the country, many of them coming from Pakistan and Uzbekistan.
Surge in jihadists
More recently, Afghan National Security Adviser Mohammad Hanif Atmar said those numbers had been bolstered by a new surge of jihadists, many coming to Afghanistan from places like Iraq and Syria.
“We’re talking about hundreds of them coming from the Middle East through Pakistan, and other regional groups,” Atmar said.
The intensified campaign against IS, and Hekmatullah’s death, came amid growing Russian allegations that the U.S. is not doing enough to prevent IS from establishing a bigger foothold in northern regions that border on Central Asian states.
U.S. officials have countered that Russia’s influence has done more to destabilize Afghanistan, accusing Moscow of providing weapons and other support to the Taliban. Russia denies those charges.
In the meantime, the U.S. is expanding efforts to cut off the Taliban’s access to funding.
U.S. military officials said Saturday that they had carried out a series of precision airstrikes April 3-5 against 11 Taliban narcotics production facilities in Afghanistan’s Farah and Nimroz provinces.
U.S. Forces-Afghanistan said in a statement that the strikes, using fighter-bombers, ground attack planes and drones, were the first counternarcotics strikes outside southern Helmand province.
“The Taliban will have no safe havens,” said Major General James Hecker, the commander of the 9th Air and Space Expeditionary Task Force-Afghanistan.
“They have become a criminal organization that profits from selling drugs and using those funds to conduct operations that maim and kill Afghans,” Hecker said. “By cutting off the Taliban’s economic lifelines, we also reduce their ability to continue these terrorist activities.”
The U.S. says it has carried out 75 strikes targeting drug production facilities since November 2017, damaging facilities that had helped generate about $200 million in profits for the Taliban.
Hecker said the expanded strikes should send a message to Taliban leaders.
“The only way they can have a peaceful solution is to sit down and reconcile with the National Unity Government,” he said.