Almost three weeks after the United States dropped its most powerful non-nuclear bomb in Eastern Afghanistan, the Islamic State group continues to show battlefield resilience as well as run its FM radio channel in the area.
Earlier this week the Islamic State Khorasan Province, the IS chapter for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia, through its Middle East based news agency Amaq, claimed it wrested control of a volatile district from the Afghan Taliban in Nangarhar, the same province where the bomb was dropped. Provincial government spokesman Ataullah Khogyani confirmed a clash between ISKP and Taliban fighters.
Last week, two American soldiers were killed in an intense three-hour fight with ISKP in the same area. The Pentagon suspected the group’s leader, Abdul Hasib, along with 35 fighters were also killed.
The fighting has not had any impact on Khilafat radio, the ISKP FM channel that can still be widely heard in most of Nangarhar province, including the capital Jalalabad.
IS has used the radio to deny government claims that the GBU-43 Massive Ordinance Air Blast, nicknamed the mother of all bombs, killed more than 90 IS fighters, including 13 commanders.
Effective propaganda tool
Locals say the radio is an effective propaganda tool.
“I am against this radio. But when I listened to it, even I became emotional and thought of going and joining IS,” said Jalalabad resident Romal. He was worried about the impact the radio was having, particularly on youth and on people living in the rural areas.
Another resident, Zerak Zaheen, had a similar reaction.
“If it has this kind of an impact on me, what impact must it be having on the illiterate people?” he asked.
The FM channel has been running for more than a year and a half, and despite Afghan government and coalition forces efforts to knock it off air, it has only endured minor hiccups.
The two-hour daily broadcast in the local Dari and Pashto languages airs religious messages and urges people to join ISKP in the “jihad” against foreign forces.
The Islamic State took hold in the Nangarhar province, particularly in Achin and some surrounding districts, in early 2015. Most of the members of the group are former Pakistani Taliban who crossed into Afghanistan when the Pakistani military started a clearing operation in its northern tribal belt called North Waziristan.
Some disgruntled Afghan Taliban, along with some Central Asian militants, mostly Uzbeks and Chechens, also joined the group.
Lately, ISKP has taken responsibility for some major attacks in Kabul as well.
The Afghan military and NATO forces ratcheted up their operations against the group, promising to defeat it this year.
Last month, US forces dropped the almost 30 foot bomb, which weighs approximately 10 tons, on a cave and tunnel network in Achin district, saying it was the right weapon under the circumstances.
MOAB reaction mixed
The use of such a heavy weapon received criticism from various quarters. Former President Hamid Karzai accused the U.S. of using Afghanistan as a testing ground. The Afghan Taliban condemned the U.S. for using this weapon on Afghan soil.
However, locals have mostly welcomed the move.
“If this bomb killed Daesh (IS) we support it. We want to be rid of Daesh’s brutality,” said local resident Ahmed Tahir.
None of the locals VOA talked to on several different occasions mentioned any civilian casualties. Most of the civilians in the area, they said, had fled due to brutal tactics employed by ISKP.
VOA Pashto and Dari Service reporters who went to the bomb site said they could only see limited damage. They saw a couple of mud houses destroyed, but crops within a mile of the bomb site were standing. The blast site had a crater but it was not deep. They could not tell if the attack had damaged ISKP in any significant way.
Some locals complained to the reporters that the bomb was not worth the hype created over it and said they would rather see bigger bombs dropped on ISKP.