U.S. and Afghan special forces in eastern Afghanistan have cleared Islamic State fighters from much of a key stronghold IS has occupied since 2015, provincial officials and local residents told VOA.
A reporter for VOA's Afghan service traveled to the remote Achin region over the last several days with Afghan forces. He found that village after village suffered destruction at the hands of IS. In the wake of a 10-day-long continuing offensive in eastern Nangarhar province that officials said killed dozens of IS fighters, the terror group left buildings crumbled, services cut off and residents traumatized.
More than 200 houses have been destroyed, and hundreds of families fled their villages for secure places, locals told VOA.
"We left our homes for our lives," said Mohammad Anwar, an Achin resident. "Our houses are fully destroyed and nothing has been left."
Residents said they grew to believe that Afghan forces would never rid IS from the area.
"Schools, markets, everything has been destroyed, and we hope everything will be rebuilt so that people can return," said Rahimullah, another local who, like most Afghans, uses a first name only. "But we are very happy that the government forces have arrived. We want peace in our country."
Outside one village, the VOA reporter found a hole filled with what locals say are the bodies of IS fighters.
Provincial officials said more than 120 militants have been killed in the ongoing air and ground offensive, now in its second week.
"Afghan commando forces, as well as police and NATO forces, have launched the operation in the area," Achin district governor Islamiel Shinwari told VOA.
Dozens of IS fighters have fled into the mountains in eastern Nangarhar province, which borders Pakistan.
"They [IS militants] were present in this area," Anwar said. "Afghan forces have arrived and the militants fled our areas."
The anti-IS operation in Achin is part of a joint U.S.-Afghan military effort to eliminate IS from Afghanistan.
"Our goal in 2017 is to defeat ISIS-K in Afghanistan," U.S. Navy Capt. Bill Salvin, spokesperson for Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, told VOA last month.
IS's self-styled Khorasan Province branch (ISIS-K) has taken root in mountainous areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, increasing its recruiting efforts and terror attacks nationwide. Its name refers to a centuries-old description of Afghanistan and surrounding areas of Central Asia and Persia.
NATO and the Afghan government say their security operations in recent months have reduced the extremists' strength in Afghanistan from several thousand to now under 1,000 fighters, and their territorial control from more than 10 districts to fewer than five.