Despite militant leader Hafiz Saeed Khan’s death, extremist group still poses threat to stability in war-torn state.
The killing of the Islamic State group’s leader in Afghanistan and Pakistan has dealt a major blow to the jihadists, but despite a U.S.-backed scorched earth offensive the regional franchise is far from over, observers said on Saturday.
Hafiz Saeed Khan was killed in a U.S. airstrike in eastern Nangarhar province last month, the Pentagon announced on Friday, as Afghan forces mount an operation against the militants after they claimed the deadliest attack in Kabul for 15 years. The death of Khan, the second prominent militant to be killed in a U.S. regional strike in recent months, is a setback to the group’s efforts to expand beyond its heartland of Syria and Iraq into Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“The killing of I.S. leader Hafiz Saeed Khan in a U.S. airstrike is a major blow to the group, which will struggle to make gains without a strong leadership,” said Kabul-based political analyst Haroun Mir. “But the I.S. threat in the region is still far from over.”
The group claimed twin bombings last month that tore through crowds of minority Shia Hazaras protesters in Kabul, killing 80 people in the deadliest attack in the capital since 2001. The devastating attack in the capital represented a major escalation for I.S., which so far has largely been confined to its stronghold in Nangarhar, where it is notorious for brutality including beheadings.
But officials denied that it marked a turning point for I.S. in Afghanistan, saying the group has been under heavy pressure from both U.S. airstrikes and a ground offensive led by Afghan forces. The U.S. military says the group’s nascent presence in Afghanistan has dwindled, with fighters largely confined to two or three districts in Nangarhar from around nine in January. But despite the offensive, residents of Nangarhar say the group is still maintaining its reign of tyranny in the region.
“The offensive is going on and the government says they are winning,” said a tribal leader in Hiska Mina, one of the worst hit districts in Nangarhar. “But Daesh fights every night, and the insecurities have increased, not decreased,” he added.
Local tribal leaders say the Taliban, a stronger group than I.S., has forged an informal alliance with the jihadists after a year of fierce rivalry in order to effectively combat government forces. “The Daesh and Taliban have stopped fighting each other and are both fighting the government,” said Malek Haseeb, a tribal leader in Kot, a mountainous district from where I.S. militants were last month flushed out by Afghan troops. “Once government forces leave, we fear Daesh will return and resume their operations,” he added.
An army commander in Nangarhar confirmed the informal insurgent alliance, but the Taliban have strongly denied joining hands with I.S.
The Taliban, who have themselves often been accused of savagery during their 15-year insurgency, have publicly sought to appear as a bulwark against I.S.’s reign of brutality and as a legitimate group waging an Islamic war.
The NATO-led coalition estimates there are around 1,500 I.S. militants in Afghanistan—mostly disaffected Pakistani and Afghan Taliban, as well as Uzbek militants and local residents of Nangarhar. The group has so far not announced a successor to Khan.
Afghan authorities erroneously believed Khan had been killed in another strike in July 2015, when a U.S. drone targeted dozens of I.S.-linked cadres in Nangarhar, close to the Pakistani border. News of his death comes after former Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour was killed in another U.S. drone strike inside Pakistan in May.