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In Partnership with Afghan Forces, Top US Commander Vows to Defeat IS

FILE - In this Aug. 20, 2017, photo, U.S. Gen. John Nicholson, top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, left, talks with Col. Khanullah Shuja, commander of the Afghan special operations force, and U.S. Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, at Camp Morehead in Afghanistan.

U.S. forces in Afghanistan have once again vowed to defeat the Islamic State militant group. the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan told VOA.

“We can defeat and will defeat IS in the future,” General John Nicholson, commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, told VOA’s Afghan service. “Our primary goal this year has been to reduce their attempt at a caliphate in Nangarhar and we are doing that.”

Islamic State's self-styled Khorasan Province branch (IS-K) emerged in the mountainous areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan more than two years ago and has wreaked havoc in several Afghan provinces, including eastern Nangarhar province where it has a presence in several districts.

The U.S. commander said IS’s plan to establish a “caliphate” in Afghanistan has been foiled by Afghan and U.S. forces.

“Islamic State Khorasan attempted to establish a caliphate in Afghanistan. They declared that Jalalabad would be the capital and they would take over Nangarhar, they have failed.” Gen. Nicholson said.

New policy

U.S. President Donald Trump last week announced his new policy for Afghanistan in which he gave battlefield decision-making powers to his ground commanders in Afghanistan.

The U.S. and the Afghan governments say their security operations in recent months have reduced the extremist group’s strength and territorial control.

“From the height of their expansion to about nine districts, we have squeezed them in three districts,” Nicholson said, referring to the IS presence in Nangarhar. "We killed over two third of their fighters. We killed their last three emirs. So yes, we will defeat Da’esh,” he added, using an Arabic term for IS.

As the group is steadily losing strength and territory in Nangarhar, it is trying to expand to mountainous parts of the adjacent Kunar and Nuristan provinces. It has made inroads in the country's northern Jawzjan and Sar-e-Pul provinces.

“As we put pressure on them, they have attempted to move to other parts of the country and we are following them there. We will stay on Da’esh,” Nicholson said.

American and Afghan forces conduct counterterrorism operations together, including operations against IS militants, the U.S. commander said.

Cooperation necessary

“When I say we, I am talking about the Afghan Special Forces with the U.S. counterterrorism forces working together with Afghan airpower and U.S. airpower,” he said.

The Afghan government says its forces are fighting along with U.S. forces to target terror groups fighting the government.

“I think the policy and future strategy is now clear. The goal is to target and annihilate terrorists from wherever they operate and make sure that Afghanistan is stable and peaceful,” said Ahmad Shah Katawazai, defense liaison at the Afghanistan Embassy in Washington. “Our forces are committed to wipe them out and in some areas, particularly fight against IS, our special forces are fighting shoulder to shoulder together with U.S. forces.”

Afghan special forces, backed by U.S. ground and airpower, have been engaged in fierce battles for the past four months to rout IS militants from Nangarhar’s Achin district, the group’s stronghold.

As part of the goal of eliminating IS in Afghanistan this year, hundreds of IS fighters, including several senior commanders, have been killed in recent months. Abu Sayed, the group’s top leader in Afghanistan, was killed in a U.S. airstrike last month. Sayed was the second IS leader in the past four months to have been killed.

But despite the battlefield losses, IS has been able to target Afghan villages and claimed responsibility for conducting a number of deadly attacks in major Afghan cities, including capital Kabul.

On Friday, the terror group claimed responsibility for storming a Mosque in Kabul, killing at least 28 worshipers and injuring more than 50 others during Friday prayers.

The U.S. general said he hopes the regional countries would support the fight against IS in Afghanistan.

“Our message to the neighbors in the region is the Afghan government and the Afghan security forces are the ones who are fighting Da’esh. So we would hope that neighbors and the other countries in the region would support the Afghan government and the Afghan security forces in the fight against Da’esh.”

Hekmat Sorosh with VOA’s Afghanistan service contributed to this report from Kabul.