WASHINGTON, July 28, 2016 — Since President Barack Obama gave counterterrorism authority to U.S. forces in Afghanistan in January to strike the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant there, the U.S. and Afghan forces partnered mission has significantly cut enemy-held territory and has reduced the number of enemy fighters by nearly half, the commander of the Resolute Support mission and U.S. Forces Afghanistan told reporters today.
In a news conference via Skype with Pentagon reporters – his first since taking command in March -- Army Gen. John W. Nicholson said from the Afghan capital of Kabul that ISIL-Khorasan, the terrorist organization’s regional affiliate in Afghanistan has seen a territory reduction from 10 districts in southern Nangarhar to parts of three or four since the start of the authority.
Operation Shafaq and Sustained Security
Operation Shafaq, the larger Afghan campaign plan for 2016 and a part of the Afghans’ sustainable security strategy against terrorist organizations, is meeting with success, the general said.
“Overall, our mission in Afghanistan is on a positive trajectory,” he added. “Thus far, in keeping with the campaign plan, we have seen the Afghans successfully defend each of these areas, largely by taking offensive operations against the enemy.”
Kabul Attack No Show of Strength
Although last weekend’s suicide bombing in Kabul, which killed about 80 Afghans participating in a peaceful demonstration, is yet another indication of ISIL-Khorasan’s brutality, Nicholson said, it doesn’t mean the group is getting stronger.
“The fact that they could conduct a high-profile attack should not be perceived as a sign of growing strength. … Indeed, their area is shrinking,” he emphasized.
And with U.S. forces in Afghanistan conducting two missions -- counterterrorism operations and training, advising and assisting Afghan forces -- they are using the counterterrorism authorities to attack ISIL-Khorasan in southern Nangahar.
Partnering With Afghan Forces
“We are also partnered with some of the Afghan special forces as we conduct these operations,” he said, speaking highly of their special operations capabilities.
“We have helped the Afghan security forces to reclaim significant portions of the territory that was previously controlled by [ISIL-Khorasan],” Nicholson said. “We have killed many [of its] commanders and soldiers, destroyed key infrastructure capabilities, logistical nodes, and [its] fighters are retreating south into the mountains of southern Nangahar.”
When operations began in January, Nicholson said, ISIL-Khorasan fighters were estimated to be around 3,000. Now, he said, that number is roughly 1,000 to 1,500. A dynamic battlefield and mountainous terrain makes it tough to develop exact figures, he added.
12 Identified Terror Groups
Many ISIL-Khorasan fighters are members of other groups that changed allegiances, the general noted, and the number of U.S.-designated terrorist organizations in Afghanistan is up to nine, with “three other violent extremist organizations,” he added.
“We will continue to stay after [ISIL-Khorasan] until they are defeated here in Afghanistan,” Nicholson said. “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.”
The fight against ISIL-Khorasan is critical, Nicholson said.
“It's nested within a larger global strategy against the Islamic State, … [and] in fact, coincides with ongoing operations in Iraq and Syria,” he told reporters. “By fighting groups like [ISIL-Khorasan] and al-Qaida here in Afghanistan, we deny them sanctuary and we inhibit their ability to conduct transnational attacks from here.”
(Follow Terri Moon Cronk on Twitter: @MoonCronkDoD)