US stepping up airstrikes against ISIS in Afghanistan

US stepping up airstrikes against ISIS in Afghanistan
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The U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan has in recent weeks stepped up airstrikes against former Taliban members who have rebranded themselves as part of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

"I can't give you a number, but I can tell you in the last roughly three weeks, we have significantly increased our pressure on Daesh in Afghanistan, particularly in the Nangarhar province," said Army Brig. Gen. Wilson "Al" Shoffner, deputy chief of staff for communication for the mission, using another name for ISIS.

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Rules of engagement do not allow the U.S. to strike Taliban members who are not with ISIS unless they are directly threatening U.S. troops, despite recent Taliban gains and U.S. military officials being concerned about cooperation between the group and al Qaeda. 

"We don't have the authority to target the Taliban and we don't specifically target the Taliban based on affiliation," Shoffner told reporters at a briefing Thursday. 

He acknowledged that most ISIS members are former Taliban members "rebranding" themselves. 

"What we see are generally former [Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan] who believe that associating with Daesh or pledging to Daesh will further their interests in some way," he said, referring to the Taliban's Pakistani affiliate.

The difference, he said, between the Taliban and ISIS is that the Afghan government sees ISIS as a "potential strategic threat," whereas it seeks political solutions with the Taliban. 

Retired Gen. David Petraeus, who commanded the War in Afghanistan, told The Hill in a recent interview the rules of engagement need to be changed. 

“Our current rules allow use of air assets to attack al Qaeda and, now, Islamic State elements, but not Taliban or Haqqani insurgents seeking to topple the Afghan government, unless they threaten our soldiers," he told The Hill. 

"So, we are not supporting the Afghan National Army the way we supported our own troops when we were fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with the Afghan National Army, and that should be changed," he said. 

Shoffner said the rules of engagement are based on a "variety of considerations" above his command level.

One reason the U.S. is not striking the Taliban is that the Afghans "have their own air force," said Shoffner, though he acknowledged it would take some time to be fully functional. 

"The national command authorities of the United States have given us certain authorities, based on a variety of considerations that are well above my level here," he added.

Petraeus said in a recent op-ed that "some administration lawyers harbor concerns" that the 2001 authorization for the use of military force does not allow for the continued targeting of the Taliban. The U.S. ended its combat mission in Afghanistan in 2014.  

"That is logic we believe unfounded; after all, it was the Taliban that allowed al Qaeda the sanctuary it used to plan the fateful attacks 15 years ago," wrote Petraeus and Brookings Institution expert Michael O'Hanlon.

The practical effect of not being able to attack the Taliban is that they can "mass for attack in many places without fear of NATO airstrikes," they wrote. 

Still, Shoffner said he appreciated the added flexibility to use U.S. airpower against ISIS in Afghanistan, which he says now numbers anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 in the eastern part of the country. 

He also admitted that the U.S. does selectively employ "assets" against the Taliban, with approval. 

"We have used them in Helmand over the last few months selectively. And I think that needs to be selective, and it has been a very deliberate decision by the commander to do that, and he approves each one of those personally." 

"So, we have got the ability. It was — it has been used selectively; I think that's going to continue. But I do think you'll see [the Afghans] increasingly capable, increasingly competent, and increasingly proficient in employing their own assets as fighting continues." 

Petraeus said it's not enough, however,

“The Afghan Security Forces have been fighting and dying for their country in significant numbers. They have the will, and we need to enable them further with our air assets," he told The Hill. 

“There is a reason we went to Afghanistan and a reason we have stayed: to ensure that al Qaeda or other transnational terrorist groups cannot establish a sanctuary in Afghanistan as existed under the Taliban rule when the 9/11 attacks were planned on Afghan soil and the initial training of the attackers was conducted there, as well."