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US Military Rejects Russian Claims About Number of IS Fighters in Afghanistan

FILE - Commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Army General John Nicholson, arrives ahead of a press conference in Kabul, Afghanistan, Nov. 20, 2017.

The United States military has rejected Moscow’s claim the number of Islamic State militants in Afghanistan runs into the thousands, while at the same time urging Russia and Iran to support the Kabul government, not the Taliban, to help defeat IS in the country.

Commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan General John Nicholson made the remark Saturday while responding to recent Russian accusations Washington is intentionally downplaying the spread of IS militants in the country.

“The numbers that are spread about the number of Daesh fighters by Russia is grossly exaggerated. It is around 1,500,” Nicholson told a news conference in the Afghan capital. He used the Arabic acronym for IS.

The general said that IS militants are operating in parts of the eastern Afghan provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar and maintain a “pocket” in the northern Jowzjan province.

Nicholson said that Afghan forces, backed by U.S. counterterrorism troops and airpower, are attacking all three of the locations

“We have cut their numbers in half over the last two years. We have killed their ‘amirs' (chiefs), we have reduced their territory, again, we have driven their fighters out of parts of the country,” explained the general, who also commands NATO’s Afghan military mission.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, while speaking in Moscow, asserted that thousands of IS terrorists are present in northern and eastern Afghan regions and are being joined by militants fleeing Syria and Iraq.

FILE - Afghan Special Forces members inspect a cave that was used by suspected Islamic State militants in Achin district, Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, April 23, 2017.
FILE - Afghan Special Forces members inspect a cave that was used by suspected Islamic State militants in Achin district, Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, April 23, 2017.

Questions about IS ‘proliferation’

Officials in neighboring Pakistan and Iran have also raised concerns and questions about what they allege is the rapid “proliferation of Daesh” in Afghanistan. Pakistani officials say rising terrorist attacks against the country are being plotted in IS sanctuaries on the Afghan side of the border.

Nicholson acknowledged the presence of foreign fighters in IS ranks but said their number is “very small” and added, “we have not seen a migration of foreign fighters from Syria and Iraq to Afghanistan.”

The American general said the Afghan branch of Islamic State was “for a period of time” receiving financial support and “leadership guidance" from Syria and Iraq. But that assistance has dwindled since coalition forces have reduced Daesh in those countries, Nicholson added.

In his remarks earlier this week in Moscow, Lavrov again alleged that “unidentified helicopters, most likely helicopters to which NATO in one way or another is related, fly to the areas where the insurgents are based, and no one has been able to explain the reasons for these flights yet.”

Iranian leaders and military officials have in recent days also consistently accused the U.S. of covertly supporting IS’s rise in Afghanistan.

American and Afghan officials, however, accuse Moscow, Tehran and Islamabad of helping the Taliban insurgency militarily. Pakistani officials deny any links to the insurgent while Russia and Iran maintain their ties with the Taliban are meant only to encourage them to engage in peace talks with the Afghan government.

U.S. officials are skeptical of those claims and see Russian involvement as part of efforts to undermine international mission to secure and stabilize Afghanistan.

It is widely perceived that Russia and Iran see the Taliban as blocking the growing IS Afghan threat because of a weakening government control in the country.

General Nicholson dismissed those assertions as a “false narrative”, saying Afghan forces with U.S. support have effectively degraded IS in their mission to defeat the terrorist group and regional stakeholders need to help in those efforts.

Visiting U.S. General Curtis Scaparrotti, Supreme Allied Commander Europe of NATO, speaking alongside Nicholson, also called on Russia and Iran and other countries in the region to work together with the international mission to ensure stability in Afghanistan.

“We would ask them to work with us to not support the Taliban or any of the other insurgent forces that are here but to work with us to ensure stability and that is in everyone’s interest here in the region,” said Scaparrotti.