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US Forces in Afghanistan Up Anti-IS Strikes, Presence in Helmand

U.S. Marines head out on an operation from their base at Musa Qala in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province, Nov. 13, 2010.

The United States is ramping up efforts on two fronts in Afghanistan — "significantly" increasing airstrikes against Islamic State in the country's east while providing more advisers to Afghan troops fighting the Taliban in the country's south.

Brig. Gen. Wilson Shoffner, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, told reporters at the Pentagon via videoconference from Kabul on Thursday that the U.S. estimates there are now between 1,000 and 3,000 Islamic State-Khorasan fighters in Afghanistan. Islamic State has designated Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of Iran as its so-called "Khorasan" province.

Most fighters pledging allegiance to Islamic State-Khorasan are in four or five districts in the southern part of Nangarhar province, where Shoffner says he's seen them trying to "establish a base."

Nangarhar province borders the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, allowing IS-Khorasan to recruit both Afghan Taliban and Pakistani Taliban, or TTP.

‘Additional flexibility’

The White House approved military authorization to target Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan late last month.

FILE - Afghan security forces inspect the site of a bomb attack in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, March 18, 2015.
FILE - Afghan security forces inspect the site of a bomb attack in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, March 18, 2015.

"The change in authorities has given us additional flexibility," Shoffner said.

Before the change, U.S. forces could only strike Islamic State militants in Afghanistan if they were a threat to U.S. forces. Asked by VOA if IS-Khorasan had ever tried to attack U.S. troops, Shoffner said he would not "get into specifics of targeting and tactical level details."

Advisers to Helmand

In addition to more strikes in the east, Shoffner said the U.S. military is increasing its footprint in Helmand province.

Afghan special forces are increasing operations in Helmand so that the regional Afghan Army 215 Corps there can rebuild, according to the general. Therefore, more Afghan operations require more U.S. advisers.

"We are increasing our advising effort in Helmand province," Shoffner said. "We are also … positioning soldiers to provide force protection."

The repositioning of U.S. forces in Helmand will not affect the overall number of U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan, which remains at about 9,800.