American military leaders say Afghanistan is mired in a battle between government forces friendly toward US interests and zealots who want to pursue a religious agenda taking the war-torn country back to the 7th century.
U.S. Army Gen. John W. “Mick” Nicholson Jr., the top American commander in Afghanistan, told reporters at the Pentagon last week the Taliban control over 10 percent of Afghan population and the insurgent group is battling with the government for control of at least another 20 percent.
On Thursday, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford described Afghanistan as a stalemate, after 15 years of war.
Nicholson said there are up to 1,300 Islamic State militants in Afghanistan who receive money, command-and-control guidance and communications support from Islamic State leaders in Syria.
He said over the next year the US-led coalition will work to help Afghans expand control in the country and beef up the ability to fight among government forces who are poorly led, ill-equipped and not well trained.
Dunford told a Senate committee that the Afghan government controlled about 70 percent of the country.
“The majority of the population’s under control of the government forces, and this is primarily the population centers and so on. And then the enemy is primarily in more rural areas that have less impact on the future of the country,” said Nicholson. “It’s something we’re concerned about, but it is something that we’re addressing with the Afghans and hoping to help them move forward next year.”
Asked about the Islamic State in Afghanistan, Nicholson said military operations have killed about a dozen of the group’s leaders and they are mainly located in Nangarhar, where previous members of the Pakistan Taliban have switched allegiances to ISIS.
While there has been financial support and leadership guidance from the main group in Syria, he said “we haven’t seen any large-scale convergence” and there haven’t been insurgents coming into Afghanistan from Syria.
There are currently about 14,000 U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, including 9,800 American forces. The number of U.S. troops will drop to 8,400 by the end of the year, based on President Barack Obama’s decision in July.
The progress of Afghan security forces is particularly evident in their special forces, police special units and its air force among other elements in which the Afghans conduct the majority of their operations, Nicholson said.
Since the security forces’ Operation Shafaq — meaning dawn — began about six months ago, its three phases so far have been successful, Nicholson said.
The first was the successful defense of Kunduz in April and May when the Afghans defended against a Taliban attempt to take the city, Nicholson said.
In June and July, the security forces successfully shifted to the south in Helmand, western Kandahar and Uruzgan to expand their security zone, Nicholson said.
Later in July, they successfully concentrated on Nangarhar in the east to conduct counter Islamic State of Iraq and The Levant operations, Nicholson said, adding that the operations were conducted by Afghan special forces enabled by U.S. counter-terrorism forces, and resulted in the deaths of the top 12 leaders of ISIL to include their emir, Hafiz Saeed Khan, and trading roughly 25 percent of the organization of their fighters and reducing their space in Nangarhar.
The general noted that when the enemy attempted to take several provincial capitals this summer, the Afghans were able to restore, stabilize and retain Lashkar Gah, Kunduz, and Tarin Kowt in Uruzgan.
“In every case, [ISIL] failed … [and] these have been important points of the campaign for the Afghans,” said Nicholson, adding that the highest concentration of different terror groups in the world remains in the area. “Of the 98 U.S.- or U.N.-designated terrorist organizations around the globe, 20 of them are in the [Afghanistan and Pakistan] region.”
“While the numbers may be higher in some of these groups elsewhere, the concentration [of] groups in this region is important,” Nicholson said, noting the second mission in Afghanistan is Operation Freedom Sentinel, which is primarily focused on counter-terrorism operations.
“Our presence there is critical to keeping pressure on these networks so [the enemy] cannot realize their international ambitions,” Nicholson said.
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