The commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan told reporters via video from Kabul today that the area controlled by ISIS there is shrinking despite higher-profile attacks on the populace.
Gen. John W. Nicholson, who assumed command of U.S. forces in the country and the Resolute Support mission in March, said what the Islamic State calls its Khorasan province comprised “about 10” districts in southern Nangarhar province at its peak in December.
Now, he said, the ISIS territory cuts into “parts of three or four districts.”
“As you’re aware, they are committing the same kinds of atrocities here in Afghanistan that they are noted for elsewhere, killing innocent men, women, children and Saturday’s attack in Kabul is another indication of their brutality, where they detonated a suicide bomb and killed upwards of 80 innocent Afghans who were out during — participating in a peaceful demonstration,” Nicholson said.
But, he contended, those attacks “should not be perceived as a sign of growing strength” for the terrorist group.
“We have helped the Afghan Security Forces to reclaim significant portions of the territory that was previously controlled by Daesh. We have killed many Daesh commanders and soldiers, destroyed key infrastructure capabilities, logistical nodes, and Daesh fighters are retreating south into the mountains of southern Nangahar as we speak.”
Nicholson said five U.S. service members have been wounded “in the last few days” in counter-terrorism operations, with three of those “evacuated out of theater” and expected to recover.
The wounded were “clearing some of these areas that I mentioned in southern Nangarhar, where Daesh previously had control, and they were helping our Afghan partners to regain control of those areas,” he said.
Those clearing ops started with airstrikes and moved into ground combat. The wounds suffered by the service members were from small-arms fire and shrapnel.
“We will continue to stay after Daesh until they are defeated here in Afghanistan. While at the same time, we’ll continue with our train, advise, assist mission with our Afghan partners, so ultimately in the future they will be able to do these missions entirely on their own,” he said, using the pejorative Arabic acronym for ISIS and noting that there are a total of nine terrorist organizations active in Afghanistan.
The majority of ISIS members in Afghanistan, which numbered around 3,000 when the Afghan/U.S. offensive began in January, are former members of the Pakistani Taliban — the group that shot activist schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai in the head in 2012.
The general said it’s believed that the number of ISIS in Afghanistan has been “roughly cut in half” since January, but “it’s very hard to say.”
“It’s a very dynamic battlefield down there. And of course it’s easy to miss people in the mountains there,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Afghan Taliban, a competitor with ISIS and longtime ally of al-Qaeda, has a “presence” in about a third of the country and controls 10 districts out of 400. Nicholson said late Taliban leader Mullah Mansour mismanaged the group’s finances.
“We also see evidence that Mansour had misdirected a lot of the Taliban revenues for his own purposes. And in fact, since his death, because of his tight control over Taliban finances, in fact, the Taliban are having trouble getting control of their own finances,” the general said.
“So this disruption of finances, disruption amongst the leadership, the fact that the Taliban fighters are fighting and dying inside Afghanistan, while their leaders are living in sanctuary and safety elsewhere, all of this has undermined the cohesion and the effectiveness of the Taliban.”
However, attacks from the Taliban are expected to continue.
Nicholson said the U.S. has conducted about 180 counter-terrorism airstrikes in Afghanistan since the beginning of the year.
“Under the new authorities, which are called strategic effects, which have been in effect since early June, about 40 airstrikes, plus or minus,” he said.
Afghan forces in Helmand, Kandahar and Nangarhar “each have their own set of U.S. advisers who stay with those forces and assist them in their operations.”
“And then, if we invoke authorities, then those advisers would assist in applying those authorities — you know, calling in an airstrike, etc., using reconnaissance, unmanned aerial vehicles, etc.”
Casualties among Afghan forces “are trending about 20 percent higher” this year than last, but the general stressed it’s been “equally impressive to see how a — again, relatively young army recovered from that and demonstrated real resiliency.”
“The Afghans are taking this fight to the enemy,” Nicholson said. “So we have great partners here in the Afghans. They’re willing. They’re able. With our assistance, they will take the fight to these nine terrorist groups and these three [violent extremist organizations] and it’s much better to fight them here than in our homeland.”