The Taliban have control over 10 percent of Afghanistan's population and the insurgent group is battling with the Afghan government for control of at least another 20 percent, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said Friday. He described a tough fight that is coming at the cost of many Afghan casualties.
Army Gen. John Nicholson said many of the Afghan deaths are in battles over checkpoints, where there are often a small number of forces who are poorly led, ill-equipped and not well trained. He said over the next year the U.S.-led coalition will work to help the Afghans expand their control in the country and beef up their ability to sustain the fight.
At the same time, he said, there are up to 1,300 Islamic State militants in Afghanistan, mainly in the east, and they receive money, command-and-control guidance and communications support from Islamic State leaders in Syria.
U.S. and Afghan military operations have targeted the group, killing many leaders and members, so he said they are in fewer Afghan districts now than they were months ago. Nicholson said the fighting has pushed them down into the mountains of southern Nangarhar and they are primarily in three to four districts, compared with the 10 districts they held last year.
On Thursday, Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described the Afghanistan fight as a stalemate, after 15 years of war. And he told a Senate committee that the Afghan government controlled about 70 percent of the country.
On Friday, Nicholson provided more details, and acknowledged there is an "equilibrium" between the government and the enemy.
"This is a positive in the sense of the majority of the population's under control of the government forces, and this is primarily the population centers and so on. And then the enemy is primarily in more rural areas that have less impact on the future of the country," Nicholson said during a Pentagon press conference. "It's something we're concerned about, but it is something that we're addressing with the Afghans and hoping to help them move forward next year."
Asked about the Islamic State in Afghanistan, Nicholson said that military operations have cut the size of the group by about 25 percent this year and killed about a dozen leaders. He said they are still largely located in Nangarhar and are mainly previous members of the Pakistan Taliban who switched allegiances to the Islamic State group.
While there has been financial support and leadership guidance from the main group in Syria, he said "we haven't seen any large-scale convergence" and there haven't been insurgents coming into Afghanistan from Syria.
There are currently about 14,000 U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, including 9,800 American forces. The number of U.S. troops will drop to 8,400 by the end of the year, based on President Barack Obama's decision in July.
Nicholson said that as part of the drawdown, the U.S. will shift some forces to other areas in the Middle East, and then focus more U.S. effort on advising Afghan troops in the east and south.
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