Officials in eastern Afghanistan say security forces have killed more than 135 Islamic State (IS) militants, including top commanders, and wounded many more in days of ground and air raids near the border with Pakistan.
The clashes in Nangarhar province’s Kot district subsided on Sunday, but search and clearing operations are still under way, said regional civilian and security chiefs, confirming at least 12 Afghan security personnel were also killed while another 18 were wounded.
Provincial Governor Salim Kunduzi told reporters in Jalalabad, the regional capital, the clashes in Kot erupted late Thursday when about 600 heavily armed men linked to Daesh (Arabic acronym for IS) staged coordinated attacks on security outposts in the area.
The fighting has forced civilians to flee to safer areas, and more and more families are still moving away from the conflict zone, witnesses reported.
This was the first major battle IS militants inflicted on Afghan security forces beyond neighboring Achin district where loyalists of the Syria-based terror group are believed to have set up their regional base.
The U.S. military spokesman in Kabul, Brigadier General Charles Cleveland, says its counterterrorism mission is helping Afghan partners prevent IS from increasing its influence in the country.
“We don't think that they are trying to expand we think they are trying to survive… So, we believe right now at their peak they were probably in about 8 to 10 districts in the Nangarhar area," he said. "We think they are now probably in about two to three districts [including Kot and Achin]."
The anti-Daesh operations have probably reduced the number of its fighters in Afghanistan to around 1,000 from an estimated 3,000 last year when the group emerged on the local scene, according to Cleveland.
The U.S. military so far has no evidence confirming IS presence in the country beyond Nangarhar and parts the neighboring Kunar province on the Pakistani border, he asserted.
Gen. Cleveland said that while Daesh has been unable to win public support for its terror operations in Afghanistan, deadly clashes with rival Taliban insurgents have also limited the group’s ability to increase its influence in Afghanistan.
“The little bit of support that they get from some fighters is typically based on the fact that Daesh is able to pay higher salaries than the Taliban. So, they are paying up to 600 dollars a month per fighter and that appears about to be the only real incentive for any Afghan to be associated with Daesh,” said Cleveland.
Afghan and U.S. commanders believe mostly renegade members of the Afghan Taliban and former militants linked to the extremist Pakistani Taliban operating on the other side of the border have filled the IS ranks.