In One Corner of Afghanistan, America Is Beating Islamic State



ACHIN, Afghanistan—The Special Forces captain gestured to the Takhto Valley, a brown-hued no man’s land of fallow fields and abandoned mud-brick compounds within easy reach of Islamic State gunners.

“Everything over there is bad,” he said.

Then the captain turned toward the Pekha Valley, an expanse of emerald-green fields of corn and wheat. Farmers there returned home this summer as Afghan and U.S. troops drove Islamic State fighters into the mountains on the Pakistan border. “Everything that way,” he said, “is better.” The war in Afghanistan is at a stalemate, according to Gen. John Nicholson, the top American commander in Afghanistan. But in Achin, the U.S. and its Afghan allies are winning on a battlefront demarcated in green and brown.

Islamic State fighters poured into Afghanistan in 2014 and turned this region—particularly the Pekha, Takhto and Mohmand valleys—into a branch of the caliphate they had declared in Syria and Iraq. Militants imposed a harsh brand of Islam and hunted those who had worked for the Kabul government.

Afghan and U.S. special-operations troops this year have pushed back Islamic State in a monthslong offense largely overshadowed by high-profile battles to retake militant-held cities in Syria and Iraq.

On Saturday, Iraq claimed victory over Islamic State, more than three years after the insurgents overran about a third of the country. Military commanders said Iraqi forces had finished clearing a desert area in the west of the country, taking control of the border with Syria.

The campaign in eastern Afghanistan plays to U.S. strengths. The enemy is now holed up in unforgiving mountains. Islamic State fighters, isolated from civilians, are vulnerable to American airstrikes. On the ground, Green Berets are paired with some of the best Afghan units, elite commando companies.

This advance against Islamic State in Achin contrasts with the fight elsewhere in Afghanistan against the Taliban and other insurgent groups who live among civilians and are difficult to target. Militants, including alleged adherents of Islamic State, carry out attention-grabbing suicide attacks in Kabul intended to make the government appear weak.

U.S. military analysts estimate as many as 1,500 Islamic State fighters remain in Afghanistan, including areas along the Pakistan border that militants claim for their caliphate. The U.S. is conducting a bombing campaign to trap them in the mountains over winter, a top U.S. commander said.

The Wall Street Journal in October was granted exclusive access to allied forces on the Islamic State front. U.S. Special Forces operate from two outposts about 1,000 yards apart, both sandbagged mud-brick buildings that look out onto Islamic State turf, about 7 miles from snow-covered peaks in Pakistan. The U.S. military didn’t allow identification of its special-operations troops or commanders for this story.

Driving Out Islamic State

One U.S. Special Forces outpost looks into the hostile Takhto Valley on one side and friendly Pekha Valley on the other. A second outpost is situated in the middle of Mohmand Valley, between liberated villages and areas that remain within reach of Islamic State gunners.

One night, U.S. troops spotted two Islamic State fighters creeping toward the front lines. Red tracer fire arced across Takhto Valley in response. A U.S. plane dropped a 2,000-lb. bomb. The explosion was so powerful that a 3-pound chunk of shrapnel from the bomb flew more than a mile and crashed into the Green Beret outpost, missing a sleeping American soldier by 20 feet.

The next morning, an Islamic State sniper took a shot or two at one outpost just as a U.S.-Afghan patrol prepared to leave. The soldiers took cover behind a dirt berm and fired bursts of machine-gun fire, volleys from grenade launchers and dozens of mortar rounds into the ridgelines, which are dotted with concealed enemy positions.

A couple of nights after that, three Green Berets and an Afghan minesweeper climbed onto a ridge overlooking Mohmand Valley, scrambling over loose rocks in the darkness. They were looking for a hidden location from which to monitor Islamic State fighters below. Instead, they noticed a rocky redoubt where they believe the sniper had hidden.

The next morning, the Green Berets guided a U.S. jet to the spot. The plane dropped two 500-lb. bombs, sending the stone emplacement sliding down the mountainside.

“A lot of places, you don’t know where the enemy is,” a top U.S. special operations commander told his soldiers during a visit to the battlefront. “At least you know they’re down that valley.”

The militants operate a pirate radio station that broadcasts messages into Afghan villages. “They say they are Muslims intent on establishing an Islamic State, and they invite people to join them,” said Pvt.Ziyaulhaq, a commando. Like many Afghans, he goes by one name. He grew up nearby, and his family, which had moved north to avoid insurgent violence, has returned.

The Americans and Afghans eavesdrop on Islamic State communications in Urdu, Uzbek and Russian, languages that suggest the militants include Pakistani, Uzbek and Chechen men.

Insurgents know their calls are being intercepted and are careful to speak in vagaries: “That place where we were yesterday,” or “Bring that thing.”

They are sometimes caught in moments of candor, however. In one conversation, an Islamic State fighter complained that his commanders had confiscated money from the sale of gems. Mohmand Valley’s jade mine is on the Islamic State side of the battlefront.

And in a conversation between a fighter and a mullah, or religious leader, the fighter said a witness could confirm that the fighter had delivered 300,000 rupees in ransom money from an Islamic State kidnapping. “The hostage was released,” the fighter said in a recorded conversation heard by the Journal. “I have no idea who got the rest of the money.”

Later, the mullah talked derisively about another Islamic State fighter. “He has become an apostate,” the mullah said. “He ran away.”

“This is not an easy war,” Maj. Gen. Bismillah Waziri, commander of Afghan special-operations forces, said in an interview.

The Taliban control or contest a third of Afghan territory, although they haven’t expanded their reach in the past year, Gen. Nicholson said in November.

Over the summer, President Donald Trump reversed Barack Obama’s practice of setting public deadlines for the U.S. commitment to the war. The Obama administration had hoped the threat of withdrawal would force the Afghan government to address corruption and military weaknesses.

In recent months, the U.S. has boosted its forces in Afghanistan to 15,300 from 11,000—the largest American deployment there since 2014. At the peak of the U.S. commitment in 2011, 110,000 American troops served in the country.

Afghan commando units—which specialize in capturing or killing insurgent leaders during nighttime raids—are expected to double to 23,300 troops. From January through Oct. 4, the commandos and other elite Afghan army and police forces conducted 1,790 operations, about a third of them without assistance from the U.S. or its coalition partners, according to U.S. Army data.

Afghan commandos, backed by Green Berets and U.S. airstrikes, launched the offensive against Islamic State in Achin in February. The campaign drew attention in April when a U.S. plane dropped one of the largest bombs in the U.S. arsenal: the Massive Ordnance Air Blast, also known as the MOAB, or Mother of All Bombs. The bomb targeted Islamic State hide-outs in underground talc mines in Asad Khel village in the Mohmand Valley.

The village is back in government hands, about 900 yards behind the battlefront. Civilians have returned to their farms. Someone suspended a child’s swing from a tree with a view of the MOAB’s impact site: mud-brick buildings collapsed into mud-brick rubble.

In November, U.S. aircraft conducted strikes in Mohmand Valley, killing 19 Islamic State fighters, a special-operations officer said.

Up and down the front, Afghan and U.S. troops have seized buildings formerly occupied by Islamic State fighters. Militants left childlike drawings of AK-47 rifles and black Islamic State flags scrawled on walls.

“We’d like to move forward and clear this place,” said 1st Lt. Nematullah Moshtaq, who leads an Afghan commando platoon in Achin.

Americans have placed remote-controlled Claymore mines around their outposts to defend against militant counterattacks. When a mine is triggered, a wall of metal balls erupts at explosive velocity from one face of the rectangular device. The words “Front Toward Enemy” are embossed on the dangerous side.

The fighting on the floor of the Mohmand Valley is matched by a lethal game of capture the flag on the ridgelines above.

In September, Islamic State fighters wedged poles holding three of their signature black flags into the rocks on the north ridgeline, taunting the Afghan commandos and their U.S. allies in outposts below.

On Sept. 17, two Afghan border police climbed the ridge to take down the flags. A booby trap exploded, killing one officer and wounding the other.

U.S. forces shelled one flag with high-explosive mortars. It was windy, and 40 rounds missed the target. When the wind calmed, the mortarmen tried again, hitting the flag on their fourth try. The Americans destroyed another black flag with a bomb after failing to knock it down with grenades.

The Afghans sent a patrol up the mountainside to plant a red, green and black national flag. “The commandos, they get really serious about the flag,” a Special Forces platoon sergeant said.

As fall deepened, Afghan and U.S. troops spotted several buildings on fire a mile or so up Mohmand Valley. They speculated that Islamic State leaders might be torching their bases and fleeing to nearby valleys.

The Afghans and Americans plan to form local militias to help fend off Islamic State once the troops have forced insurgents away. A dozen village elders have agreed to provide men for the force, U.S. officials said.

It is a tactic the U.S. has tried before with limited success over the 16 years of the Afghan war. In some instances, U.S.-backed village police have preyed on residents, alienating those whose support the Afghan government needs.

U.S. commanders say they expect Afghan police and regular army forces to help secure liberated villages. The more territory seized from militants, one Special Forces team leader said, “the more hold forces we’ll need” to keep it.

Home again

The American team leader had served a tour a year ago, when the province was so thick with Islamic State fighters that his men couldn’t even reach the Mohmand Valley. Militants threatened to cut off Highway 7, an artery for commerce between Kabul and Peshawar, Pakistan. Farmers and their families fled.

Now, on the green side of the front lines, many have returned to work the fields. Children wave at passing Afghan and American troops, and the sound of their laughter reaches the Special Forces outposts.

Awa Jan, a farmer with a white beard and a weathered face, said that he, his wife and their children fled Islamic State fighters. But with no means to support his family, he was forced to return to his village.

He recalled the time Islamic State fighters ordered residents to the bazaar, where the militants beheaded seven men. “They made us watch,” Mr. Jan said. “They said this would be our fate if we worked with the government.”

His family became a target because his son serves as an Afghan commando. “Islamic State told me I had to bring my son here, or they’d kill me,” Mr. Jan said, adding that he refused. Militants spared his life, he said, but expelled him from the village.

Mr. Jan is back farming his land—2 acres of wheat, tomatoes and rice. “They came in the name of Islam,” he said, “but actually they aren’t Muslims.”

A teenager named Bakhtullah recalled the headless bodies in the back of a pickup truck that passed through his village. The boy’s father was killed serving in the army, he said. His mother and his two older brothers, he said, had no choice but to remain in the Pekha Valley during the Islamic State occupation. Bakhtullah said militants beat people with sticks and radio antennas when they didn’t attend prayers at the mosque.

“They were like dogs,” Bakhtullah said. “Thank God they ran away”

Wahidullah, a man in his 30s, said he couldn’t afford to leave his land. “We have a farm here, our livelihood,” he said. Islamic State tax collectors seized half of every bag of wheat he grew, he said.

Another villager allegedly told Islamic State fighters that Wahidullah’s brother worked for the local police. Militants beat Wahidullah with a rubber hose, he said: “I wish all Islamic State were dead.”Courtesy THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, Dec 11, 2017