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US, Afghan forces push back Islamic State, al-Qaida

U.S. servicemembers set up a defensive perimeter in Wardak, Afghanistan, in July 2016. A variety of Afghans interviewed expressed the hope that President Donald Trump would bring decisive action and sharp attention to the country's problems.

CHRISTOPHER R. HANSON/U.S. ARMY

By E.B. BOYD | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 23, 2016

KABUL, Afghanistan — The U.S. military and its Afghan partners have managed to push back the Islamic State’s presence in the country from nearly a dozen districts to just two or three, the military’s top spokesman in Afghanistan told C-SPAN Thursday.

A year ago, U.S. commanders estimated the strength of the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan at between 1,500 and 3,000 members, Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland said.

Today, he said, it is about 1,000. “We think we’ve significantly reduced that presence.”

In January, President Barack Obama gave U.S. troops in Afghanistan the authority to engage in combat against Islamic State fighters. Earlier this month, Gen. John Nicholson, the international coalition’s top military commander in Afghanistan, said U.S.-led counterterrorism operations and Afghan government forces had killed 12 of the organization’s top leaders in the country. These included Hafiz Saeed Khan, the group’s emir, or senior leader.

Overall, U.S. troops in Afghanistan conducted more than 350 operations against the Islamic State and al-Qaida this year, Cleveland told C-SPAN. More than 200 al-Qaida members were killed or captured, he said.

In October, the Pentagon announced it had conducted strikes against the top al-Qaida official in Afghanistan, Faruq al-Qatani, along with another senior leader, Bilal al-Utabi.

While the bulk of U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan are focused on training the Afghan army and police, a smaller contingent is authorized to conduct operations against terrorist groups. The goal is to prevent them from gaining a foothold in Afghanistan and using it as a base of operations for attacks against the United States and its allies.

“Mission number one for us is trying to protect our homeland by being able to aggressively target those who wish to do us harm,” Cleveland said.

Of the 98 organizations around the world that the U.S. has designated as terrorist groups, 20 have a presence in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, U.S. officials say. Islamic State fighters are primarily located in Nangarhar and Kunar, two provinces in the eastern part of the country that border Pakistan. Al-Qaida fighters operate in at least six provinces also along the country’s eastern border, U.S. officials have said.

boyd.eb@stripes.com
Twitter: @ebboyd

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