The emir of the Islamic State terror group in Afghanistan is likely dead, targeted in a U.S.-Afghan raid on a cave-and-tunnel complex that left two U.S. special operations forces soldiers dead.
Pentagon officials said Friday that they suspected IS Khorasan province leader Abdul Hasib was killed in a brutal, three-hour firefight in the Mohmand Valley, in the Achin district of Afghanistan's Nangarhar province.
Officials said another 35 IS fighters also had been killed, and that they were investigating the possibility the dead U.S. soldiers were victims of friendly fire.
"This was a dangerous mission and we knew this going in," Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis told reporters. "We knew he [Hasib] was going to be well-protected and that they were going to fight very hard to prevent from being captured or killed. And that is indeed what happened."
The operation to kill or capture Hasib began about 10:30 p.m. Wednesday local time, when 50 U.S. Army Rangers and 40 Afghan commandos arrived by helicopter at the heavily fortified IS complex.
"Within minutes of the insertion, the combined force came under intense fire from multiple directions," Davis said. "It was during these initial moments of the raid that the two Rangers were mortally wounded."
As the fighting raged on, the U.S. and Afghan forces called in air support, getting help from drones, AC-130 gunships, Apache attack helicopters and F-16 fighter jets.
It was not until 3 a.m. local time that U.S. and Afghan forces were extracted from the area.
A statement by U.S. Forces-Afghanistan praised the performance of the U.S. and Afghan forces as "exemplary," adding initial indications were that they had been able to avoid civilian casualties despite the presence of women and children in the IS cave complex.
Earlier Friday, U.S. defense officials identified the Army Rangers killed during the operation as Sergeant Joshua Rodgers and Sergeant Cameron Thomas.
In a statement, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the U.S. owed both soldiers an "irredeemable debt" for their bravery and sacrifice.
But despite the apparent success of U.S. and Afghan forces in killing the leader of IS in Afghanistan, some questions remain.
The location of the IS headquarters complex is just a couple of kilometers away from an extensive IS tunnel-and-cave complex targeted just two weeks ago with the largest non-nuclear bomb in the U.S. arsenal, a GBU-43 Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb.
'Mother of all bombs'
Officials said the ordnance, also known as "the mother of all bombs," killed 92 IS fighters, though as many as 800 may have been in the area.
"This weapon was the right weapon against this target," General John Nicholson, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said at the time. "The enemy had created bunkers, tunnels and extensive minefields, and this weapon was used to reduce those obstacles so that we could continue our offensive."
Yet despite those assertions, other officials said it was unclear whether the MOAB had made any significant impact on IS operations in the area.
Defense officials Friday declined to say whether additional IS fighters might be lurking in other tunnels or caves in the area, though they said the compound targeted in the raid was "separate and apart" from the one targeted with the MOAB.
The Pentagon's Davis also said U.S. and Afghan efforts were having a significant impact on IS operations, estimating the number of IS fighters in the country had most likely been cut in half, to fewer than 1,000 militants.
Unlike in Iraq and Syria, where IS numbers were boosted by the influx of tens of thousands of foreign fighters, U.S. military and intelligence officials think the vast majority of IS Khorasan fighters come from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
At its height, intelligence and military officials and analysts say, IS may have boasted as many as 2,000 to 3,000 fighters in Afghanistan, though other estimates have put the number in the hundreds.