Some Afghan and other Western officials question whether those numbers are inflated, but the Americans say they are an indication that the group continues to replenish its ranks with new fighters.
Part of the reason the two-year joint operation by American and Afghanistan against the Islamic State has made little progress is simply that the two forces are operating in a terrain where they have had little control for years. Airstrikes and commando operations bring bursts of pressure, but the militants have release valves all around them. On one side is the porous border with Pakistan, where many of the fighters come from. Elsewhere is largely Taliban country.
“It’s like a balloon,” General Nicholson said. “We squeeze them in this area, and they’ll try to move out elsewhere.”
A visit this month to Khogyani, a district in the east where Islamic State fighters have shifted, showed that the realities on the ground spoke to the increasing complexity of the Afghan conflict, and underlined how daunting a task it will be to defeat the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
The Afghan government’s authority in Khogyani, in a remote region of Nangarhar Province, has long been confined to the district compound and the immediate surroundings. The Taliban ruled the rest. Opium has been grown all around.
After years of war with no clear victor, the region had settled into a strange sort of calm as the Taliban and the government found ways to co-exist, as has happened to varying degrees around the country.
Although the Taliban are known for their oppostion to girls’ education, in Khogyani, the militants here allowed schooling, showing a willingness to drop a demand that had lost them hearts and minds before. In return for having nominal control, the government has paid the salaries of teachers and health workers that the Taliban could not afford.
Abdul Jabar, who had been displaced from his home near the Pakistan border by recent battles between ISIS and the Taliban, said there was a two-story high school for girls close to his new home, with an enrollment of up to 1,600. Mir Haidar, who distributes vaccinations, said the three clinics there employed women, despite the Taliban’s past opposition to women in the workplace.
So established was Taliban rule in Khogyani that when Islamic State fighters started shifting there, many people said they trusted in the Taliban’s protection.
That is, until Taliban lines started to buckle.
“The Taliban were puffing their chest — ‘We are strong, don’t go, we will take care of you,’” said Abdul Qadeem, a father of 13. “Then,” he said, the Islamic State “arrived at night, and we left with nothing but this shawl on my shoulder.”
The Islamic State’s local affiliate in Afghanistan first emerged in 2014, swiftly gaining ground across Nangarhar Province. It quickly drew the attention of the United States military, which had scaled down its presence in Afghanistan to a small counterterrorism mission against Al Qaeda and a larger NATO mission to train Afghan forces to hold their ground against the Taliban.
American and Afghan officials now have little reason to believe that the Afghan group, despite pledging allegiance to ISIS, maintains regular contact or receives directions from the Islamic State operating in Iraq and Syria. Instead, they say, the Islamic State in Afghanistan is largely made up of Pakistani militants pushed across the border by military operations in that country.