A recurring rumble of explosions echoes off the barren, boulder-strewn slopes of the Spin Ghar mountains, each ordnance aimed wishfully at redoubts where Islamic State militants are suspected of hiding. Afghan and U.S. special forces listen in on enemy chatter, intercepting dozens of their radio channels. American AC-130 gunships and F-16 fighter jets whir in circles overhead, at low altitude, waiting for strike orders. Soldiers on the ground man the mortars.
The operation against the Islamic State in Khorasan — or ISIS-K, as the Syria-based group’s Afghan contingent is known — is now into its fourth month of unremitting warfare. The U.S. military has pledged to “annihilate” the group by year’s end, and the redoubled assault has contributed to a spike in U.S. airstrikes to levels not seen in Afghanistan since President Barack Obama’s troop surge in 2012. One in five of those strikes is against ISIS-K, despite it controlling only slivers of mountainous territory.
The battle is lopsided, but each day the front line here in Achin district moves back only slightly. Both local intelligence officials and the U.S. military believe that ISIS-K is replenishing its stock of fighters almost as quickly as it loses them.
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