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Islamic State 'Not Growing' in Afghanistan, Nicholson Says

FILE - U.S. Army General John Nicholson, commander of Resolute Support forces and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, walks with Afghan officials during an official visit in Farah province, Afghanistan, May 19, 2018.

The Islamic State terror group is losing its grip on parts of Afghanistan, slowly succumbing to pressure from U.S. and Afghan forces, the outgoing commander of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan said Saturday.

General John Nicholson rejected the notion that IS-Khorsasan, also known as ISIS-K or IS-K, has been able to meaningfully expand its presence following a concerted effort to wipe it out, which began last year. That effort included use of the largest non-nuclear bomb in the U.S. arsenal.

"ISIS-K is not growing," said Nicholson, who hands over command of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan on Sunday to Lieutenant General Austin Miller.

"They have been able to replenish a portion of their losses by recruiting from other violent extremist organizations," he added in an email statement to VOA. "Despite this recruiting, they are losing fighters and losing ground."

Recent estimates from U.S. counterterrorism officials put the number of IS-Khorasan fighters at more than 1,000, even after the defeat last month of IS-K in northern Jowzjan province, where 250 fighters surrendered along with their commander.

More recently, on August 26, the Afghan government announced the death of the IS-Khorasan emir, Abdu Saad Erhabi, along with his nine commanders in a U.S. airstrike, calling it a "major blow" to the terror group.

Staying power

But U.S. defense and intelligence officials have been cautious of predicting the group's demise, noting that IS-Khorasan, like IS in Iraq and Syria, has been resilient.

Erhabi was the third IS-Khorasan emir killed by U.S. or Afghan forces since April 2017, when the estimated number of fighters dropped to about 600.

For now, senior U.S. counterterrorism officials believe the bulk of the remaining IS fighters, mostly local Afghans, as well as fighters from Pakistan and Uzbekistan, are in Afghanistan's southern Nangarhar province, with a small number also operating in the country's eastern Kunar province.

Some Afghan officials worry more may be lurking, warning that the terror group has been bolstered by an influx of foreign fighters — first a surge of about 3,000 from Pakistan and Uzbekistan, and later from hundreds of jihadists fleeing Iraq and Syria.

U.S. defense officials, including some familiar with border security measures that have been put in place by the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan and by Afghanistan's neighbors, are skeptical.

In either case, Nicholson said, there will be no letup in the effort against IS-Khorasan.

"United States counterterrorism forces and Afghan Special Security Forces will keep up the pressure until they are defeated," he said. "This reinforces the importance of the United States and NATO mission in Afghanistan, to prevent the resurgence of international terrorist groups from the region."