Special Operations Forces Expel Terrorists From Strongholds in Eastern Afghanistan
LT. AMY FORSYTHE, U.S. NAVY
In one of the largest joint operations ever conducted between U.S. and Afghan special operations forces, Afghan commandos captured a major Islamic State-Khorasan (ISIS-K) stronghold in eastern Afghanistan in June 2018, effectively depriving the terror group of its local capital.
The Afghan commandos were advised by U.S. Army Special Forces Soldiers assigned to NATO Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan.
The joint force of Afghan Special Security Forces (ASSF) and U.S. Green Berets killed 170 fighters affiliated with ISIS-K, the terror network’s Afghan offshoot, during a multipronged assault on the village of Gurgoray that served as the group’s primary base of operations in eastern Nangarhar province. They set up a small base camp in just a matter of a few days, approximately 25 kilometers from the Afghan-Pakistan border.
There were no Afghan or U.S. military force fatalities during the mission, which involved three ASSF companies and six U.S. Special Forces teams along with support enablers.
Before the operation, ISIS-K took over homes and forced hundreds of families to flee the area, prompting village elders to request assistance from Afghan commandos. Human intelligence indicated ISIS-K financed itself through illegal logging and talc mining, as well as exploiting local villagers.
ISIS-K — also known as Daesh — gained a reputation for extreme brutality with executions by beheading and high-profile attacks in Jalalabad and Kabul.
“The achievements by Afghan-led integrated air and ground operations, including the destruction of ISIS-K command and control nodes by Afghan-led ground patrols in Nangarhar, highlight the tremendous growth and increased capability of Afghan Special Security Forces since the Afghan government announced its plans to grow ASSF last year,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Joshua Thiel, Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan commander.
Since it first arrived in Afghanistan in 2014, a faction of ISIS-K attempted to establish a caliphate in Nangarhar province. With an initial design to conquer, then subjugate, the citizens of Jalalabad, ISIS-K continues to attempt to find sanctuary that provides a springboard for its global jihad ideology.
In early 2015, ISIS official spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani released an audio statement announcing the expansion of the “caliphate” with the creation of Wilayah Khorasan (Khorasan province), a historical region incorporating parts of the modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Tensions between existing Taliban fighters and the ISIS-K faction increased, and fighting between the two groups broke out in Nangarhar province. By June 2015, ISIS-K fighters, comprising Afghans and foreign fighters, seized territory in Afghanistan for the first time.
Upon receipt of U.S. presidential authorities to target Islamic State affiliate militias in January 2016, U.S. Forces in Afghanistan aggressively pursued ISIS-K in remote and nonpopulated areas of Nangarhar that it claimed as its caliphate. Under pressure, ISIS-K relocated and then declared Mohmand Valley in Achin district as its center of operations.
The announcement of the U.S. South Asia Strategy in July 2017 ushered in a conditions-based approach to an enduring U.S. commitment in Afghanistan. This policy enabled the execution of a joint special operations offensive in January 2018 that pushed ISIS-K 7 kilometers from its previous holdings in Mohmand Valley. Suffering its second consecutive and pivotal loss, ISIS-K retreated into nearby Gurgoray in Deh Bala district to conduct terror operations.
The Afghan government offered an unprecedented cease-fire to Taliban forces in mid-June 2018, which provided an opening to intensify efforts against ISIS-K. The Nangarhar operation assembled one of the largest contingents of Afghan Commandos and Green Berets ever to push ISIS-K back into the rugged terrain and return land and homes to their rightful Afghan owners.
“This area, two months ago, was controlled by Daesh,” U.S. Army Brig. Gen. John W. Brennan Jr., the Train, Advise and Assist Command-East commander, said in June 2018. “We pushed them into the mountains, so they cannot harm the people here.”
The Afghan commandos achieved yet another combat milestone by conducting a successful prolonged counterterrorism operation with the use of three Afghan Commando companies from two Special Operations Kandaks, or SOKs.
Placement of the battalion-size contingent of commandos in Deh Bala was made possible by the Afghan government’s investment to double the size of the commando forces, as directed by President Ashraf Ghani’s 2020 Roadmap. Within a year of the announcement, 4,000 additional commandos joined Special Operations Kandaks throughout the country.
The fight against the Islamic State and other militant groups, including al-Qaida, is at the heart of the counterterrorism mission being conducted by Afghan and U.S. forces throughout the country.
“This operation proved that putting troops on the ground, in addition to continuous airstrikes, was the right combination to prevent ISIS-K from infiltrating the country from the east,” Lt. Col. Thiel said. “The Afghan National Army and Afghan Border Force troops will maintain a presence in the area to ensure ISIS-K won’t re-establish their caliphate along the porous border of eastern Afghanistan. And we will continue to stand firmly with our Afghan partners and support ASSF growth, operations and our enduring partnership for global security.”