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War in Afghanistan Heats Up as Fight Against ISIS Winds Down

Soldiers from, the 101st Airborne Division (AASLT) Corps board a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter in preparation for a partnered force protection patrol in Laghman province Sept. 23, 2015. (U.S. Army/Capt. Jarrod Morris)
Soldiers from, the 101st Airborne Division (AASLT) Corps board a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter in preparation for a partnered force protection patrol in Laghman province Sept. 23, 2015. (U.S. Army/Capt. Jarrod Morris)

Another telling sign that the wars against ISIS in Iraq and Syria were winding down and entering the counter-insurgency phase recently came from the U.S. commander in Afghanistan.

Army Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan and the NATO Resolute Support mission, said that he had used a B-52 bomber and an F-22 Raptor advanced fighter normally assigned to the Iraq/Syria theaters to bomb suspected drug havens in Afghanistan.

The use of the B-52, flying out of Al Udeid airbase in Qatar, and the F-22, flying out of Al Dhafra airbase in the United Arab Emirates, showed that "Things have gone well in Iraq and Syria," Nicholson said last Monday in a video briefing from Kabul to the Pentagon.

"So we're beginning to see the effects of a shift of resources" from Iraq and Syria to Afghanistan, Nicholson said. The shift "will increase over the course of the winter, going into the spring, as the situation continues to improve there" in Iraq and Syria.

As reported in September by Military.com's Oriana Pawlyk, the Air Force has also sent refueling tankers to Afghanistan and boosted the number of F-16s in Afghanistan from 12 to 18.

Lt. Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian, commander of U.S. Air Forces Central Command, told reporters that he would be working with Nicholson's staff "on how to best synchronize his advise-and-assist strategy going forward to optimize the placement of the air assets."

Nicholson's comments on the shift in assets followed on earlier statements by officials of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve [CJTF-OIR) that the effort to drive the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria [ISIS] from its last strongholds had reached the stage where the focus could be turned to recovery and counter-terror operations in both Iraq and Syria.

In a Nov. 7 briefing to the Pentagon from Iraq, Air Force Brig. Gen. Andrew Croft, deputy air commander of Combined Joint Forces Land Component CJTF-OIR, said that the number of air strikes has been dropping significantly as the coalition runs out of targets.

He said that "the level of air support, if you're measuring it in number of strikes, has dropped by about 60 to 70 percent in the last month -- that's the month of October -- compared to the previous average over the last eight or nine months."

"That's indicative of the fact that ISIS is collapsing, not only as a physical caliphate, but also in ownership of land," Croft said. "So the number of targets has dropped dramatically, particularly in the last month."

"From the air component perspective, you're going to see those number of strikes drop even further," Croft said, "but what you will see is a continued requirement for aircraft, such as our remotely piloted aircraft -- those are the unmanned aircraft -- and some manned aircraft to do surveillance and reconnaissance."

In Iraq, "one of our challenges is continuing to find pockets of ISIS as they are -- have moved to the desert, like the Jazira Desert, for instance, which is northeast of al-Qaim," a town on the Syrian border that fell to the Iraqi Security Forces [ISF] earlier this month, Croft said.

On Friday, the Defense Department said in a release that a total of 10 airstrikes had been conducted in Iraq and Syria from Nov. 10-23. On several days in that period, there were no airstrikes, DoD said.

The diminishing threat from ISIS was outlined last week in a study by the Britain-based Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Center [JTIC], which reported that the number of attacks in Iraq has fallen to its lowest level since ISIS declared a "caliphate" in 2014.

"Non-state armed group attacks and resulting fatalities represented the lowest monthly totals since the formation of ISIS and the declaration of the caliphate in June 2014, highlighting the extent of the decrease in operational activity by the group in Iraq," the report said.

"The 126 attacks in October represented almost half the peak recorded in January 2017, while the 102 fatalities represented an 80.0 percent decrease from November 2016," the report said.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has been reluctant to declare that ISIS has been defeated in Iraq until the desert area north of al-Qaim is cleared. On Sunday, the ISF announced that a clearing operation in the desert had begun.

"The objective behind the operation is to prevent remaining Daesh [ISIS] groups from melting into the desert region and using it as a base for future attacks," the ISF said.

Earlier this month, Army Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for CJTF-OIR, said operations against ISIS in Syria by the U.S-backed Syrian Democratic Forces had progressed to the point that State Department officials were now on the ground to participate in recovery efforts.

"Even as we remain focused on the defeat and destruction of ISIS, the coalition is supporting stabilization efforts, so Syrian cities like Raqqa and Tabqa can recover after years of fighting and brutal ISIS occupation," Dillon said in a Nov. 14 briefing from Baghdad to the Pentagon.

"Many of these stabilization efforts in Syria are coordinated through the U.S. State Department's Syrian Transition Assistance and Response Team, or START, and they support the locally-led civil councils" in areas ISIS has lost to the SDF, Dillon said.

The U.S. has previously been reluctant to confirm the presence U.S. aid workers in Syria, or even the existence of the START team. In June, the New York Times reported that seven START team members were in Syria.

However, the White House has repeatedly said that the U.S. will support minimal recovery efforts but will not engage in so-called "nation building."

In August, Brett McGurk, the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, told reporters that the U.S. will be involved only in what he called "stabilization."

"This is not reconstruction, it's not nation building," he said. "Stabilization is demining, rubble removal so that trucks and equipment can get into areas of need. It means basic electricity, sewage, water, the basic essentials to allow populations to come back to their home," McGurk said.

"Now, sometimes we meet with local councils and they say, 'We really want you, the United States, to help us with the--you're going to run the hospitals, aren't you? You're going to run our school system.' And no, we're not--we're not doing that," McGurk said.

"We've learned some lessons and we're not very good at that, and also that is not our responsibility. We will do basic stabilization," he said.

As the ISIS "caliphate" crumbles, the main concern for the White House and DoD is that the sectarian rifts that gave rise to the jihadists in the first place will return.

In Iraq, the non-binding independence referendum held by the Kurdish Regional Government [KRG] in September led to clashes between the ISF and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and the loss by the KRG of the oil city of Kirkuk.

In Syria, NATO-ally Turkey has pressed the U.S. to stop arming the mostly-Kurdish SDF.

Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose support for the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad has mostly crushed rebel groups, showed his own eagerness to begin winding down the Russian presence.

Following a meeting with Assad in Crimea, Putin said "We still have a long way to go before we achieve a complete victory over terrorists. But as far as our joint work in fighting terrorism on the territory of Syria is concerned, this military operation is indeed wrapping up."

Assad said that he gave Putin "and all Russian people our greetings and gratitude for all of the efforts that Russia made to save our country."

Last Tuesday, President Donald Trump said "We had a great [phone] call with President Putin. We're talking about peace in Syria -- very important. We're talking about North Korea. We had a call that lasted almost an hour and a half," he said, and "we're talking very strongly about bringing peace for Syria."

In a statement later, the White House said that "Both presidents also stressed the importance of implementing U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254, and supporting the U.N.-led Geneva Process to peacefully resolve the Syrian civil war, end the humanitarian crisis, allow displaced Syrians to return home, and ensure the stability of a unified Syria free of malign intervention and terrorist safe havens."

"The two presidents affirmed the importance of fighting terrorism together throughout the Middle East and Central Asia and agreed to explore ways to further cooperate in the fight against ISIS, al-Qaida, the Taliban, and other terrorist organizations," the White House statement said.

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