Achin, Afghanistan – Going to Afghanistan’s Nangahar province was a bit worrying, simply because the province is known to have fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
ISIL claims part of the province, calling it Wilayat Khorasan.
The armed group has already carried out attacks, including a suicide bombing against the Pakistan consulate in the provincial capital, Jalalabad, about two weeks ago.
Nevertheless we headed there, because this is an important story.
We arranged to be embedded with the Afghan army fighting ISIL. We came across some of the military intelligence officers.
An estimated 4,000 ISIL fighters are based in the province. They came with their families and established a foothold in rural areas on the border with Pakistan.
“There is no way that they came with all the weapons and logistics without foreign help,” one officer told us.
Another officer said ISIL is mainly made up of foreigners: “Chechens, Uzbeks, Pakistanis, Afghans and Arabs.
“They are rich. They have a lot of money…ISIL here has links to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi [ISIL’s leader]. The connection is through Arab sheikhs in the Gulf,” the officer claimed.
At the front, the last military post is well protected with sand and HESCO bags. The fighters inside are local villagers who joined the police to confront ISIL.
Clashes broke out and we took cover. The commander at the post told off his colleagues who were firing back at ISIL positions: “Don’t waste your bullets…we don’t have enough.”
There were tense and chaotic moments.
We saw ISIL’s flag and positions. I asked why the army doesn’t go and clear the area.
“Once we go they retreat…and once we pull out they come back,” one of the army officers said.
We had filmed enough and we were told to hurry up.
The battalion commander in the area has had a hardened military career. You could tell from the scar on his neck. I asked where he got it from.
“Helmand. Fighting the Taliban. I got hit with shrapnel,” he said. As he started counting the wounds on his body, I lost track of his moving finger. It was nearly all over his body.
“ISIL will be defeated by the end of March,” he said confidently.
I pointed out to him that ISIL carried out suicide attacks just weeks ago in Jalalabad.
“Well, attacks happen everywhere in the world, even in Paris,” the officer responded. “We and the Afghan people won’t allow ISIL a foothold here. We will fight them to the last drop of our blood.”
As we were heading back we made a quick stop at a marketplace. People there were clearly worried and don’t believe the government’s claim that its forces are making gains against ISIL.
“The government only controls the main roads and checkpoints,” one person said. “ISIL controls the rest. They are carrying out all of their activities, including executions.”
ISIL is a new battlefront for the Afghan army and government. They are already struggling to contain a relentless Taliban insurgency.
There is some good news for the Afghan government and army: ISIL and the Taliban are also fighting each other.
But the question must be asked, can the government and army defeat ISIL and the Taliban?