At least five U.S. troops were wounded this week by small-arms fire and shrapnel while fighting alongside Afghan forces to expel ISIS from strongholds in eastern Nangarhar province, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan said Thursday.
Two of the wounded troops quickly returned to duty after treatment, and three others were medically evacuated from the country.
"We expect a full recovery" for all five troops, said Army Gen. John Nicholson, commander of Operation Resolute Support in Afghanistan.
The wounded troops were believed to be the first U.S. casualties in Afghanistan in fighting against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria offshoot, called Islamic State-Khorasan Province, or IS-K.
In a video briefing from Kabul to the Pentagon, Nicholson said the U.S. casualties occurred during an ongoing offensive by the Afghan National Defense Security Forces to rout ISIS from Nangarhar. He said ISIS' areas of control in the province had been reduced from 10 districts to three while inflicting heavy casualties on the terror group.
"We have killed many Daesh commanders and soldiers," Nicholson said, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS, and "Daesh fighters are retreating south" into the mountains on the Pakistani border.
He said ISIS' force had been reduced from an estimated 3,000 fighters to about 1,500.
Nicholson said the U.S. casualties occurred "in recent days," but the Pentagon later put out a clarifying statement. One was wounded on July 24 and the other four were wounded in a separate engagement on July 25, the statement said. "I characterize it as a clearing operation," Nicholson said of the effort in Nangarhar called Operation Shafak (Dawn).
In June 2015, when reports emerged of an ISIS presence in Nangarhar, U.S. military officials said that the group appeared to consist of disaffected members of the Taliban who were "self-branding."
However, Nicholson said that IS-Khorasan Province (a reference to a historical region including parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan) now had direct financial and communications links with the self-proclaimed "caliphate" in Iraq and Syria.
Nicholson told the Associated Press earlier this week, "They have applied for membership, they have been accepted, they had to meet certain tests, they have been publicized in Dabiq," the ISIS magazine. The ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan included members of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or Pakistani Taliban, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Nicholson said.
He said that planning for the offensive in Nangarhar, which is home to the U.S. base in Jalalabad, began before the suicide bombings claimed by ISIS in Kabul last Saturday that killed at least 80 -- the worst terror attack in the capital since 2001. "The fact that they could conduct a high-profile attack should not be perceived as a sign of growing strength," Nicholson said.
In January, President Obama authorized the U.S. military to launch airstrikes against ISIS in Afghanistan. Airstrikes had previously been limited to supporting U.S. troops or Afghan forces who were in danger of being overrun. In June, Obama loosened the rules of engagement again to allow airstrikes against the Taliban.
"I've been using those [new] authorities daily," Nicholson said in his first briefing to the Pentagon as Afghan commander since taking over from the now-retired Army Gen. John Campbell in March.
Since January, the U.S. has conducted a total 470 airstrikes in Afghanistan, with about 180 of those defined as "counter-terrorism" missions, Nicholson said. Since June, about 40 of the counter-terror airstrikes have targeted the ISIS affiliate, he said.
Nicholson was also using the new rules to boost the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan past the authorized level of 9,800. The additional troops were being deployed for counter-terror missions on a short-term basis, Nicholson told The Wall Street Journal.
"If I need to, I can bring in additional assets, and this could be reconnaissance, it could be air assets, it could even be ground assets," Nicholson said. "We brought in additional assets this time" for the offensive in Nangarhar, "and we'll do it again as needed to defeat" ISIS. He did not specify how many U.S. troops were in Nangarhar.
Previous U.S. commanders in Afghanistan have pointed to progress in the campaign against the Taliban and improvements in the capabilities of the Afghan forces only to have the Taliban prove their resilience with more attacks, but Nicholson echoed the same theme.
"Our mission in Afghanistan is on a positive trajectory," Nicholson said, and "We're cautiously optimistic the Afghan security forces are on a positive trajectory" despite mounting casualties. He said that fatalities for the Afghan forces were up 20 percent in the first six months of 2016, compared to the estimated 20,000 killed in 2015.
The Afghan forces conducted successful operations north of Kunduz to prevent another attack on the city, which was briefly overrun by the Taliban last year, Nicholson said. He also said a revitalized Afghan 215th Corps was having success in southwestern Helmand province, where the Taliban gained territory last year in Afghanistan's biggest poppy-producing areas.
The Afghan forces, backed by U.S. advisers now embedded with them, were operating under what Nicholson called a new "sustainable security strategy."
"The idea is that the Afghans will focus their efforts in certain areas and mainly it's the key population centers, the ring road, major economic arteries in the country," Nicholson said. "So these areas are generally designated as areas they will hold or will fight for."
"So if it's a hold or fight area, the Afghan security forces will immediately act to interdict [or] defeat any enemy effort to gain ground in those areas," he said. "There are other areas of the country where they will disrupt enemy operations, but they're not seeking to hold or fight for those areas."
President Obama recently changed course on the number of U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan next year. Rather than reducing the troop level from 9,800 to 5,550 as originally planned, Obama said he was authorizing about 8,400 U.S. troops for Afghanistan in 2017.
In recent remarks to reporters in Kabul, Nicholson gave more exact figures and outlined the missions for the troops.
He said that 8,448 U.S. troops had been approved by the White House for deployment in Afghanistan in 2017. Of that number, about 2,150 would be involved in counter-terror missions, another 3,000 would serve as advisers to the Afghan forces, and the remaining troops would provide support missions, Nicholson said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.