A senior Afghan military officer has claimed his forces killed Hafiz Saeed Khan, the emir for the Islamic State’s Khorasan province, during an ongoing military operation in the eastern province of Nangarhar. However, Khan’s death has not been confirmed by the Islamic State.
Major General Mohammad Zaman Waziri, the commander of the 201st Selab Military Corps told Pajhwok Afghan News on Aug. 7 that Khan and 29 other Islamic State fighters were killed during fighting in Nangarhar’s Achin district, one of the Islamic State’s primary strongholds in Afghanistan. According to Pajhwok, “a source in the Islamic State” confirmed Khan’s death.
Khan’s death has not been independently confirmed by The Long War Journal. The Islamic State has not released an official statement announcing Khan’s death, and the Afghan Ministry of Defense said it was investigating the reports. The US military has not commented on reports of Khan’s death.
Afghan officials have erroneously reported that they have killed Khan in the past. In July 2015, the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s intelligence service, announced that the United States killed Khan in an airstrike in Achin. Strangely, exactly 29 Islamic State fighters were also said to have been killed alongside Khan – the same number as this current report. Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee who served as an unofficial spokesman for the Islamic State, refuted reports that Khan was killed in July 2015. Dost has since defected from the Islamic State; he accused the group of conducting acts of wanton violence against civilians.
Before defecting to the Islamic State in 2014, Khan served as a mid-level commander in the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan for the Arakzai tribal agency. He and a number of disaffected Pakistani and Afghan Taliban commanders formed Khorasan province and swore allegiance to Islamic State emir Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. [See LWJ report, Discord dissolves Pakistani Taliban coalition.]
Islamic State’s sanctuary in Nangarhar is under siege
Afghan security forces, backed by US special operations forces, have launched an offensive to oust the Islamic State from its stronghold in Nangarhar. Over the past two weeks, Afghan forces were said to have ejected the Islamic State from areas in the districts of Kot and Haska Mina (Dih Bala), where Khan is reported to have lived.
In Kot, the Afghan military claimed it destroyed Islamic State training camps. The Afghan military said it killed 78 jihadists during the operation, however reports indicate the Islamic State put up minimal resistance and melted away into the nearby mountains. Five US soldiers were wounded during the fighting in the district, which has served as a base of operations for the global jihadist group.
The Islamic State’s base in Kot has been the focus of Afghan military operations in the past. In February 2016, the Afghan military claimed it seized Kot, however it was unable to maintain control of the district.
The Islamic State has been largely confined to Nangarhar after it was defeated by the Taliban in Helmand, Zabul, and Farah provinces in 2015. In Nangarhar, the Islamic State has battled both the Afghan government and the Taliban. US officials have estimated that Khorasan province has 1,500 to 3,000 fighters in its ranks.
Targeting Khorasan province’s leadership
The US began targeting the Khorasan province’s top leaders after the group was officially formed in January 2015. In March 2015, the US killed Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim, who was appointed the deputy governor of Khorasan province. Khadim was previously a senior leader in the Taliban and was a former detainee at Guantanamo Bay. The US military confirmed that it killed Khadim in an airstrike in the Kajaki district in Helmand.
The US also killed Jalaluddin, Khorasan province’s mufti – or senior religious and legal scholar – in an airstrike in Nangarhar in October 2015, as well as group spokesman Shahidullah Shahid in July 2015.
The US policy of killing senior jihadist leaders in counterterrorism operations while abandoning counterinsurgency efforts to combat jihadist groups’ military and political strength has had questionable results at best. While the killing of top terrorist leaders has forced terrorist organizations to replace their leaders and adjust their security plans, the deaths have done little to stem the spread of jihadist groups and their control of territory in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Mali, and elsewhere.
For instance, the US removed the top leaders of the Islamic State of Iraq in 2010. The Islamic State of Iraq was al Qaeda’s branch in Iraq until it was ejected in 2014 and declared itself the Islamic State. The deaths of Abu Omar al Baghdadi, the Islamic State of Iraq’s emir, and Abu Ayyub al Masri, its military commander, may have set the group back, but only temporarily. With a deep bench of leaders, the Islamic State of Iraq retained a significant military capability and seized on the weakness of the Iraqi government and the Syrian civil war to take over large swaths of both countries by June 2014.
Given the Islamic State’s limited footprint in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and its multitude of enemies, killing senior leaders may have a small impact on the group, but airstrikes alone cannot dislodge the Islamic State from territory it holds.