JALALABAD, Afghanistan — Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter met with U.S. military leaders in Afghanistan on Friday, as the United States seeks to help local forces beat back a surge in Taliban attacks and contain an emerging threat from militants linked to the Islamic State.
Carter touched down at Operating Base Fenty in eastern Afghanistan’s Nangahar province — east of Kabul along the Pakistan border — where an array of armed groups pose a major test to Afghan forces as the bulk of foreign troops withdraw.
It is Carter’s first visit since President Obama announced in October that the United States would keep a force of 5,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan into 2017, abandoning his earlier ambition to withdraw all U.S. troops before he leaves office.
The Pentagon is also slowing the pace of troop reductions next year, a recognition of the ongoing reliance of Afghan troops on foreign military power, and of the continued insurgent threat that a 14-year U.S. and NATO operation has been unable to extinguish.
Violence has surged this fall amid a power struggle among Taliban leaders.
In October, Taliban fighters overran the northern city of Kunduz. The group has also mounted sustained attacks in the southern Kandahar and western Helmand provinces, straining morale within Afghan forces that despite a decade of foreign training lack key military capabilities.
According to a Pentagon report released this month, insurgents are improving their ability to “find and exploit” Afghan government vulnerabilities.
The increasingly tenuous situation in Afghanistan is a reminder that Obama’s hopes of ending the insurgent wars begun under his predecessor have not played out as planned. In addition to extending its presence in Afghanistan, the United States has returned to combat operations in Iraq and is expanding its military role in Syria.
Under current plans, the U.S. military will remain at a major air base in Bagram, outside of Kabul, along with several other facilities throughout Afghanistan. While much of the future effort will focused on training and advising Afghan forces, the Obama administration has also laid plans for a substantial counterterrorism operations focused on al-Qaeda.
During his visit, Carter is not expected to hold talks with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, but will meet in Nangahar with Acting Defense Minister Mohammed Masoom Stanekzai.
Fighters from the Islamic State, also known as Daesh, first entered the province last year, making their barbaric mark by forcing a group of village men to sit on explosives and then detonating them. Since then, the black-clad fighters have gained control of several districts, where they have closed schools, declared the right to take widows and unmarried girls, and meted out regular brutal punishments to enforce Sharia law.
Until now, most Islamic State-affiliated forces in Nangahar have been Afghan Taliban defectors, Pakistan-based militants and Islamist fighters from Uzbekistan.
But this week, Gen. John Campbell, the U.S. and NATO military commander in Afghanistan, said Islamic State fighters from Iraq and Syria are also entering the area and seeking to establish a regional stronghold with support from local loyalists. He estimated the Islamic State group has between 1,000 and 3,000 fighters in the area.
A senior defense official, speaking to reporters en route to Afghanistan on condition of anonymity, said the Islamic State presence was seen by Taliban leaders as a threat and added a “new dynamic” to an already challenging situation.
Three days ago, in a sign of its growing reach, the Islamic State launched a radio broadcast in Nangahar, called “The Voice of the Caliphate,” which urges young men to join its holy war and issues propaganda against the government.
Residents have said they fear it will attract jobless young men. Afghan officials have not been able to locate its source, but provincial officials said it was being broadcast from across the border, presumably in the tribal regions of Pakistan.
“Nangahar is the region that most distresses us now,” Gen. Dawlat Waziri, senior spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defense, said in an interview Thursday. He said Afghan forces had defeated the Islamic State in several other provinces and are now aggressively fighting them in four districts of Nangahar, where they have killed between 300 and 400 militants in recent months.
But after fleeing to the mountains, he said, the militants “re-emerged” and are now fighting to take three districts again, in some cases in alliance with Taliban fighters and in other cases against them. The Islamic State forces “have money. They buy Taliban commanders, and weaker Taliban groups switch sides,” Waziri said.
Waziri said Carter’s visit comes at a “critical time” for Afghanistan in its fight against both the Taliban and the growing Daesh forces. “American support is crucial to us. We thank them for all they have done, but we still need and deserve their help in order to become a proper army.”