ISLAMABAD - Local officials and foreign military commanders in Afghanistan have played down concerns Islamic State is expanding activities beyond its traditional strongholds in the east.
They insist the recent killing of the local leader of IS in an American drone strike and gains by Afghan forces against the Syrian-based terrorist group have cornered the militants in parts of eastern Nangarhar and Kunar provinces, which border Pakistan.
The nearly 2,600-kilometer porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is blamed for militant and other illegal movements on both sides. Pakistani officials have lately intensified efforts to build new monitoring structures along the frontier but insist it is humanly not possible to plug the entire rugged mountainous boundary.
IS launched its regional operations from the remote district of Achin in Nangarhar in early 2015 before expanding to surrounding districts. It appointed a local militant commander, Hafiz Saeed Khan, as the chief of its so-called Islamic State of Khorasan (IS-K) province, consisting of Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of Iran.
But residents and politicians in southern Zabul province, which also borders Pakistan, have lately reported the presence of IS in two volatile districts, Khak-e-Afghan and Deh Chopan.
According to Atta Mohammad Haqbayan, the director of the provincial council, IS has established recruitment and training camps. He insisted the attention of the Afghan government has been drawn to the emerging threat, but no action has been taken so far to evict the militants.
However, the spokesman for the U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Brigadier General Charles Cleveland, would not confirm the presence of IS in Zabul.
"We have not seen evidence of an IS-K presence in Zabul and believe IS-K is still primarily in two districts of southern Nangarhar, with a very small presence in Kunar,” Cleveland told VOA.
Afghan ambassador to Pakistan, Hazrat Omer Zakhilwal, agreed and told VOA that “Daesh only concentrated on Nangarhar.” He used an Arabic acronym for IS.
The U.S. Department of Defense confirmed last week that IS chief Khan, a former Pakistan Taliban leader, was killed in a July 26 drone strike against his hideout in Nangarhar’s Achin district, the main IS base in the country. Local officials said 30 other militants were also killed in the drone strike.
The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, recently revealed that IS' Afghan branch has direct links with the main group in Syria and Iraq.
IS established bases in Achin to train, equip, disseminate and control fighter pipelines, providing the militants with a continuous supply of fighters, according to the Pentagon.
“They certainly [were] given a major blow both by [the] elimination of their leaders and also the loss of a big number of their fighters, as well as territory,” asserted Ambassador Zakhilwal when asked about the possible impact of Khan's death on the terrorist group.
U.S. military officials believe that 70 percent of the militants in IS ranks come from the extremist Pakistani Taliban who fled to Afghanistan two years ago when the Pakistan military launched a counterterrorism offensive against Taliban strongholds in the tribal districts near the Afghan border.
Afghan authorities allege IS fighters receive fighters and weapons from across the Pakistani border.
The National Security Adviser of Afghanistan Hanif Atmar warned Monday that the Middle Eastern group would be able to expand and prolong terrorist activities in the region if it manages to find sanctuaries in Pakistan.
His spokesman Tawab Ghorzang confirmed to VOA Atmar’s reported remarks in which the advisor also claimed the killing of around a dozen IS leaders in counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan, including Khan.
Initially, the U.S. military estimated the number of IS fighters in Afghanistan at around 3,000 and they were active in six to eight districts in Nangarhar.
But intensification of U.S. drone strikes and operations by Afghan forces since the beginning of this year have killed hundreds of IS fighters, significantly reduced their number and confined them to remote parts of two districts, including Achin.