The U.S. military has carried out dozens of airstrikes against the Islamic State militant group in Afghanistan this year, a senior U.S. Army officer said Thursday, but it is still Taliban fighters who hold sway over much more of the country.
Brig. Gen. Charles H. Cleveland told reporters at the Pentagon in a briefing held from Kabul that in the first three months of 2016, U.S. forces carried out 100 counterterrorism strikes across the country. He estimated that between 70 and 80 percent of them were against the Islamic State and that most of those were in Nangahar, the mountainous province in eastern Afghanistan where the Islamic State wants to settle and take over the capital city of Jalalabad.
Counterterrorism efforts against the Islamic State have been carried out with unilateral U.S. strikes and in operations in which Afghan commandos sweep through regions with advising from U.S. Special Operations troops, Cleveland said.
“The example I would give you was just over a week or so ago, there was an operation in the district of Kot in Nangahar,” the general said. “And it was really about a 36-hour operation, maybe a little bit less. But what we were able to do is have U.S. unilateral strikes against Daesh targets, and then the [Afghan troops], specifically their [commandos], were able to move in and essentially clear part of a valley.” Daesh is another name for the Islamic State.
Overall, U.S. Air Force officials report releasing 128 weapons by air in Afghanistan in January, 115 in February and 58 in March, according to air-power summaries.
The strikes come after the White House approved in January new rules of engagement that allowed the U.S. military to strike the militants in Afghanistan because of their affiliation with the Islamic State. Under previous rules, U.S. forces could strike only in specific circumstances, including to help Afghan troops fend off an enemy attack and to target al-Qaeda and groups affiliated with it.
The Pentagon had declined to release statistics on how many strikes had been carried out against the Islamic State in Afghanistan until Thursday, however. That was in contrast to the U.S.-led military campaign in Iraq and Syria, where the basic location and circumstances of each strike are released on a near-daily basis. Cleveland said he intends to provide similar details going forward for strikes in Afghanistan every few weeks.
The strikes against the Islamic State in Nangahar have done little to improve security in other parts of the country. Cleveland acknowledged Thursday that in particular, the future of Helmand province in southern Afghanistan remains perilous.
The Taliban hold a crescent-shaped swath of territory that stretches from the middle of the Marja district in central Helmand, north to Now Zad and then east through the Musa Qala and southern Kajaki districts. All were sites of significant operations involving U.S. Marines and other coalition forces prior to the United States withdrawing virtually all of its troops from Helmand by October 2014.
“You know, there was some reporting over the weekend suggesting that Helmand was about to fall and that the capital of Helmand, Lashkar Gah, is about to fall,” Cleveland said. “We don’t believe that’s the case. That said, as has been said several times, Helmand is not a rosy picture right now. It is a difficult, contested area.”
Cleveland said that al-Qaeda and other militant organizations also still call Afghanistan home. U.S. military officials are concerned about an increasing relationship they have noted between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda does not pose a significant threat to the Afghan government but can assist and train the Taliban so it is more effective, he said.
About 9,800 U.S. troops remain assigned in Afghanistan. Under a plan endorsed by President Obama, that number could be reduced to 5,500 by early next year. The new top commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. John “Mick” Nicholson, is expected to assess conditions and make his own recommendations to senior U.S. officials. Any changes to the current plan could be announced prior to a summit planned in July with NATO leaders in Warsaw.