Nangarhar, Afghanistan (TFC)— President Barack Obama campaigned on pulling out of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. By the time he left office, large numbers of conventional forces were replaced by more secretive units. Now, as President Donald Trump sends a new surge to Afghanistan, we’d all do well to mind Nangarhar. It’s proven to be a lethal hotbed of activity even as American ground presence dipped.
If you’re looking for real-time publicly disclosed US military casualties, Icasualties.org is a safe bet. According to the site, ten of the sixteen US military deaths in Afghanistan between March 2017 and April 2018 occurred in Nangarhar province. A number of those troops were thereafter linked to various special operations units. Simultaneously, US efforts had apparently targeted a persistent ISIS cell within Nangarhar.
Fears that the notorious militant group would enter Afghanistan have endured since Mosul and Raqqa were first seized. When it actually happened, early ISIS units were quickly eliminated by native Taliban fighters. Despite those assaults, the militant organization established and maintained a presence in Nangarhar.
Americans largely remained unaware of this until US special operations troops reportedly faced down Afghan ISIS. Special Forces Sgt. 1st Class Mihail Golin, Washington Post reported, was killed in Nangarhar’s Achin District in January 2018. American troops had apparently been contesting both Taliban and “Islamic State-Khorasan” assaults for some time in the region.
Shortly afterward, Nangarhar’s Achin District became a test site for the so-called “Mother Of All Bombs”. Detonated in alleged retaliation for Staff Sgt. Golin’s death, the GBU-43/B Massive Ordinance Air Blast was worshiped by hawks for being the largest non-nuclear explosive used in combat by the US. It was an unusual strike for numerous reasons, including the name of the ISIS cell it apparently targeted. Islamic State- “Khorasan”.
The first time that word was connected to a militant group was briefly under President Obama. In 2015, as the US escalated ISIS-related operations, officials announced the presence of the Khorasan Group. It was reported the group posed an “imminent” threat to Western interests in Syria exceeding the Islamic State. American bombs soon saturated the new threat not long after, then news dropped.
Syrian-based activists and even the local Al-Qaeda affiliate then reported they’d never heard of Khorasan. In fact, they accused the US of fabricating the group to justify otherwise illegal strikes on Al-Qaeda and other rebel groups. The Intercept, which broke that story, also reported military officials essentially used the word Khorasan as a nick-name for otherwise unidentified groups. The word itself is indeed Islamic, and in one sense is an ancient name for Afghanistan. How ironic ISIS now has an Afghan branch which American operatives have assigned the same name.
Nangarhar, and specifically the region targeted by the MOAB strike, are also uncanny. The tunnel systems allegedly connected to the MOAB deployment have a long history of use by Al Qaeda and the Taliban. In fact, the region of mountains, in general, is connected to several keynote events throughout the War On Terror. What’s happening in Nangarhar, however, while tied into all these orbiting factors, is much bigger than any of them alone.
Take Afghanistan’s lucrative opium trade for example. Nangarhar Province is the country’s fifth largest opium poppy producer, according to a 2016 United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime report. Production of the cash crop rose by 43% from 2015-2016, the report details, while eradication operations dwindled. Achin District, where the MOAB was dropped, is one of Nangarhar’s biggest opium and heroin producers. Beyond the opium poppy being a hallmark staple for the Afghan economy, removing it depends on reliable boots-on-the-ground. Conventional American presence was pulling out and, despite billions spent training the Afghan Army, much is left to be desired.
Which is where Islamic State-Khorasan in Afghanistan’s activities are also interesting. According to reports, after entrenching in Nangarhar Province militants labeled ISIS proceeded to destroy swaths of opium crop. Reuters also reported the fighters arrived in numerous white pick up trucks and were armed enough to quickly push out the Taliban. They also reputedly had vast amounts of cash money with them which they used to quell disagreements about burning valuable crops.
These militants then used the crop burning’s as leverage against the Taliban to appear as better Muslims than a Mujahadeen corrupted by drugs. It’s still unknown where these individuals accessed that kind of money. According to the report, some locals allegedly overheard militants discussing selling gold possible from outside Afghanistan. Local Afghans trapped under ISIS rule report similar strict standards which flowed from Syria’s Raqqa and Iraq’s Mosul.
Simultaneously, as Afghanistan’s opium production rose, it also changed. As the rise was studied, it was discovered that a new variety of genetically modified opium had invaded Afghanistan. Despite the mutant being traced back to China, the country has categorically denied responsibility. The new variety matures much quicker than normal, allowing for greater yields to be harvest faster. At the same time, Afghanistan’s heroin trade started producing the drug domestically. Before, the crop would need to be shipped out of the country to then be processed into heroin. Once 2016 was over, all that changed.
Nangarhar Province will become a not-so-discrete focal point of the Afghan War in the months to come. The region currently sits at the center of several currently evolving facets of the war. Changes which may morph the seemingly indefinite conflict into something unrecognizable from what arrived nearly two decades ago