Increases in airstrikes, U.S. injuries, and a wider range of authorities for U.S. troops are revealing a much more involved U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, despite a planned reduction of troops there by the end of the year.
The top U.S. general in Afghanistan said Thursday his forces have carried out about 470 airstrikes in support of the government's efforts to rid the country of insurgents and terrorists.
In fact, more weapons were employed through airstrikes in Afghanistan last week than any other week in 2016, Lt. Col. Chris Karns, a spokesman for US Air Forces Central Command, told VOA Thursday. The number of weapons released during strikes are up more than 80 percent from the first half of 2015 to the first half of 2016, according to data released by the U.S. Air Force.
Approximately 40 strikes have been conducted under the new authorities granted by the president last month to support the Afghan government's efforts, Gen. John “Mick” Nicholson told reporters Thursday via video conference from Afghanistan.
U.S. troops in Afghanistan now can attack Taliban fighters directly to help Afghan forces gain a strategic advantage. Previously, American forces were authorized only to strike Taliban units if they were under attack, or if their Afghan allies were facing imminent defeat.
About 180 strikes have been in support of the U.S. counterterrorism mission, which targets remnants of al-Qaida, pockets of Islamic State fighters and other terror groups.
In addition to the increased strikes, the U.S. military has shifted resources as Afghans have focused on fighting in the eastern part of the country.
“The Afghans have shifted their main effort up to the east from Helmand to Nangahar, and then we assist them by moving our ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance], our air power to that area,” said Nicholson.
Five U.S. service members were wounded during offensive counterterrorism operations while partnered with Afghan forces on July 24 and July 25.
The wounds were a result of small arms fire and shrapnel while attempting to clear an area in southern Nangahar province, Nicholson noted, adding that none were life-threatening injuries.
The shift to the east takes the battle to Islamic State fighters in the country, which Nicholson said numbers about 1,000 to 1,500 fighters after several U.S. airstrikes helped to cut by half the size of their force. Islamic State-Khorasan is primarily based in three or four districts in Nangahar province, he said.
The group has claimed responsibility for an attack in Kabul that killed more than 80 people and wounded 200 others. The suicide attack Saturday was the deadliest in Kabul since the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban regime.
Reported troop increases
The fight to push Islamic State out of Afghanistan comes as Nicholson told reporters in Kabul he was making use of a special authority to bring additional assets and ground forces into the country for a short-term offensive against IS-Khorasan.
As reported by The Wall Street Journal, Nicholson said such deployments were common, as requirements are adjusted by commanders across the Central Command region, which covers the Middle East and South Asia.
The U.S. will decrease its troop numbers in Afghanistan from 9,800 to about 8,400 by the end of the year. Nicholson has said about 3,000 troops will be advising Afghan forces as part of NATO’s Resolute Support Mission. Roughly 2,150 of the 8,400 U.S. troops in Afghanistan will support the U.S. counterterrorism mission, dubbed Freedom’s Sentinel. About 3,300 will serve as enablers for both missions.