The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has the potential to be an “enormous” threat in Afghanistan, but its presence in the country has lessened over the past few months, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan said Thursday.
ISIS “really does present the potential to just be an enormous threat,” said Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland, chief of communications for the coalition, at a Pentagon briefing. “Obviously, we’ve all seen them, how rapidly they are able to spread, in other parts of the world.”
Between January and March, the United States has carried out 70 to 80 airstrikes against ISIS in Afghanistan, Cleveland said.
Additionally, the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) carry out operations against ISIS, and the Taliban fights against ISIS, he added.
“Here in Afghanistan, one of the things that appear[s] to be common to just about everybody is that nobody really wants Daesh in the neighborhood,” he said, using an Arabic name for ISIS. “And so, whether it’s the Taliban attacking Daesh, whether it’s locals trying to rise up against them or the ANDSF operations and now some of our unilateral strikes, we do think they are being contained more than they probably were last fall.”
The result of all this has been to lessen ISIS’s capacity and footprint in Afghanistan, Cleveland said. For example, ISIS is now believed to be in two to three districts, down from six to eight districts three months ago.
Cleveland did not have a specific number of how many ISIS fighters remain in the country. The United States estimates there are about 1,000 to 3,000 fighters, and that the number is probably on the lower end of that range, he added.
The coalition has also seen ISIS fighters trying to escape Nangahar province, where most strikes have targeted, and move into the Kunar-Nuristan area or Ghazni, Cleveland said.
ISIS’s ranks have also been thinned by some defections, either to the Afghan government or to the Taliban, where many of them originated, he said.
The assessment on U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan currently being done by new coalition commander Gen. John Nicholson will take into account ISIS, Cleveland added.
Despite recent successes, Cleveland said, ISIS in Afghanistan is still a concern.
“Our concern with them is they’ve got the ability to regenerate quickly, and they’ve got the ability to catch fire, as we’ve seen in other places,” he said. “So we think it’s incredibly important just to keep constant pressure on them and try to get after them at every opportunity we can.”