Homeland Security

General: Up to 30 Percent of ISIS Fighters in Afghanistan Taken Out This Year

Army Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the Resolute Support and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan commander, briefs reporters at the Pentagon on Dec. 2, 2016. (DoD photo by Air Force Staff Sgt. Jette Carr)

ARLINGTON, Va. — The commander for U.S. operations in Afghanistan said as many as 30 percent of ISIS members in the country were bumped off in 2016 while the territory held by Islamic State Khorasan was cut from nine districts to three.

Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., who leads the Resolute Support mission and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, told Pentagon reporters today that while operating in the area with “the highest concentration of terrorist groups anywhere in the world” — that’s 20 of the United States’ 98 globally designated terrorist organizations — counterterrorism forces there conducted more than 350 operations against al-Qaeda and ISIS this year.

That includes killing or capturing — at which point they’re handed over to Afghan authorities — “nearly 50” top members of al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, he said.

Nicholson noted that “the danger…is that these groups mix and converge,” but the U.S. has “conducted operations this year we call a green sword series of operations” against Islamic State Khorasan.

“About two dozen command and control facilities, training facilities were destroyed. Financial courier networks were disrupted,” the general said. “…All of these actions are integral to our dual mission in Afghanistan. So, on the one hand, we’re focused on keeping military pressure on these networks. Likewise, we’re focused on helping the Afghan Security Forces to build their capability to defend their own country.”

The Afghan security forces hold territory that houses about 64 percent of the population, down from 68 percent in September.

“The decrease has not meant more control to the Taliban. We see them still holding less than 10 percent of the population. More of the country — slightly more is now contested. So, we say they still hold roughly two-thirds of the population. The enemy holds less than 10 percent and the balance is contested,” he said.

And as Russia has injected itself into the Syrian conflict, the Kremlin “has overtly lent legitimacy to the Taliban,” Nicholson charged. “And their narrative goes something like this: that the Taliban are the ones fighting Islamic State, not the Afghan government. And of course… the Afghan government and the U.S. counterterrorism effort are the ones achieving the greatest effect against Islamic State.”

The Taliban and ISIS called a truce a few months ago to focus on their common enemy, U.S. and Afghan forces.

“This public legitimacy that Russia lends to the Taliban is not based on fact, but it is used as a way to essentially undermine the Afghan government and the NATO effort and bolster the belligerents,” he added. “So, it’s not helpful. And it’s something that the Afghan government has addressed with Russia.”

The Taliban are still heavily involved in the opium trade and are trying “to extend their influence” to other areas “where there’s mining or other things where they can — cultivation, mining, extortion and kidnapping.”

“This is how this movement funds itself. So again, it’s revealing about the true nature of the Taliban. And the way that they rely on criminal networks and these kinds of activities. Drug trafficking, kidnapping and extortion to raise money, and this really reveals who they really are.”

Nicholson said the Haqqani network still poses “the greatest threat to Americans and to our coalition partners and to the Afghans.”

“And the Haqqanis hold five American citizens hostage right now. I think this is worth remembering as we think about the Haqqani network. And they remain a principal concern of ours. And they do enjoy sanctuary inside Pakistan,” he said.

The Haqqanis are allies of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. In September 2011 they attacked the U.S. Embassy and NATO bases in Kabul; in 2012, they attacked a U.S. base in Khost province.