U.S. forces in Afghanistan are upping the fight against an expanding Islamic State offshoot based near the Afghan-Pakistan border and are determined to defeat the extremist group in the country this year, U.S. military officials tell VOA.
"Our goal in 2017 is to defeat ISIS-K in Afghanistan," U.S. Navy Capt. Bill Salvin, the spokesperson and director of public affairs for Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, told VOA's Afghan service.
Islamic State's self-styled Khorasan Province branch (ISIS-K) has taken root in mountainous areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, increasing its recruiting efforts and terror attacks nationwide. Its name refers to a centuries-old description of Afghanistan and surrounding areas of Central Asia and Persia.
NATO and the Afghan government say their security operations in recent months have reduced the extremists' strength in Afghanistan from several thousand to now under one thousand fighters, and their territorial control from more than 10 districts to fewer than five.
"In 2016, we believed that year began with about 3,000 or so ISIS-K members in about 12 districts in southern Nangarhar," Salvin said. "Right now, we believe there are about 600 ISIS-K members in two or three districts in southern Nangarhar."
But despite those battlefield losses, ISIS-K has "shown an ability to conduct attacks in Kabul and elsewhere in the country," General John Nicholson, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
IS claimed responsibility for a March 8 attack on a military hospital in Kabul that killed at least 31 people.
Analysts caution that U.S. and Afghan officials may be overly optimistic when speaking of containing IS's spreading influence in Afghanistan.
"Ultimately, we should applaud U.S. efforts to cut down the presence of IS fighters in Afghanistan," said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia specialist at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. "But the broader problem is the ideologies of hate that keep IS strong. Taking aim at the ideological drivers of IS will be very difficult."
2-way approach to fighting IS
"The Afghanistan-Pakistan region is a magnet for militancy, and there's no reason why the hundreds of IS fighters that have been lost won't be replaced," he said. "There are deeper issues that need to be addressed — such as why IS managed to develop a presence in Afghanistan in the first place — and these are issues that can't be addressed by the U.S. military."
Roughly 8,400 U.S. troops are deployed in Afghanistan, carrying out operations against IS and training the Afghan army.
American and Afghan forces routinely conduct counterterrorism operations together. U.S. warplanes carried out hundreds of airstrikes against IS targets in Afghanistan during the first seven months of last year.
U.S. military spokesman Salvin said American forces pursue a two-way approach to combating IS.
"The first is the unilateral U.S. counterterrorism mission called Operation Freedom, and that is where we will conduct the operations against terrorist groups like ISIS-K on our own," he said. "The other way that we are attacking ISIS-K is in partnered operations with the Afghan special forces.
"They have had a great success in fighting ISIS-K, especially over the last month or so," Salvin said.
Extremists try to control schools
IS fighters have made inroads in recent years into Afghanistan's eastern Nangarhar province, bordering Pakistan, and are active in several neighboring districts.
Since 2015, IS has attacked several government installations and villages in several other districts of the province as well. In some areas, they closed public schools and replaced them with their own religious seminaries.
Afghanistan welcomed a recent call by General Nicholson for a few thousand more troops from the U.S. or other coalition partners to help in the battle against IS.
"We stand confident that the new U.S. administration under President [Donald] Trump will remain strategically engaged and continue its support," Afghanistan's Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani said in an appearance at the Atlantic Council in Washington this week. He described Nicholson's call as "an appropriate decision considering the prevailing security challenges still facing us."
Rabbani was one of dozens of foreign attendees at Wednesday's meeting of the Global Coalition to counter Islamic State. The 68-nation group met to accelerate international efforts to defeat IS worldwide.
Afghans stronger now than in 2016
Rabbani met with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and discussed how Afghanistan and Pakistan can cooperate in curbing IS cross-border activities, U.S. officials said. Pakistan was not part of the conference.
According to media reports, many IS members in Afghanistan belong to the Orakzai tribe in Pakistan, whose militants maintain a presence on both sides of the Durand Line between the two countries.
"There needs to be greater cooperation with respect to Afghanistan and Pakistan on these kinds of issues," State Department spokesman Mark Toner told VOA's Deewa service.
U.S. military spokesman Salvin predicts bolstered Afghan forces ultimately will win the fight against Islamic State.
"We believe that they are stronger going into 2017 than they were when they finished 2016," Salvin said. "So while we do believe it will be a challenging year, we believe that the Afghan forces will be successful, and we will be here to be their partners."
VOA's Afghanistan Service contributed to this report.