Top US general: ISIS in Afghanistan connected to core group

Top US general: ISIS in Afghanistan connected to core group
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The Afghanistan affiliate of the Islamic State terrorists is connected to the core group in Iraq and Syria, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said Wednesday.

"This franchise of Daesh is connected to the parent organization," Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, said in an interview with The Associated Press, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.

That means the Afghan branch, which the Pentagon refers to as IS-Khorasan or IS-K, has financial, strategic and communications connections to the main group, Nicholson said.

That assessment appears to be a shift from just a month ago, when a Pentagon report said ISIS in Afghanistan had a “limited” connection to the main group.

“Command and control and funding from core ISIL is limited,” the report to Congress said, using another acronym for ISIS. “Rather than relying on external funding, IS-K is attempting to develop its funding streams within Afghanistan, which has put it into conflict with the Taliban and other groups vying to raise revenue from illegal checkpoints and the trade of illicit goods.”

In the AP interview, Nicholson said the Afghan branch was accepted into the main group after applying for membership.

"They have applied for membership, they have been accepted, they had to meet certain tests, they have been publicized in Dabiq," he said, referring to ISIS’s magazine.

On Saturday, ISIS claimed responsibility for an attack in Kabul that killed 80 people and injured more than 200 others. It was ISIS’s first attack on the capital and the worst attack on the capital since the Taliban insurgency began in 2001.

Hours later, Afghan forces, backed by U.S. troops, launched an offensive against ISIS bases in Nangarhar Province, where the group has mainly taken hold in Afghanistan.

Even before the offensive began, Nicholson said, ISIS’s presence in Nangarhar had been reduced from nine or 10 districts to three or four.

With the current offensive, he said, ISIS is now retreating toward the south. When the region is cleared, civilian forces such as local police will move in to make sure ISIS doesn’t return, he added.

Nangarhar lies along the border with Pakistan, and Nicholson said a "significant proportion, a majority of fighters" come from the Orakzai agency area of Pakistan. Most of the fighters are believed to be disaffected former Pakistani Taliban members.

Nicholson said the U.S. military sees ISIS in Afghanistan and the Pakistani Taliban “frankly as almost interchangeable at this point.” For example, he highlighted an airstrike last month that targeted ISIS and killed Pakistani Taliban leader Umar Khalifa.

“This is a demonstration,” he told the AP, “of our commitment against these terrorists no matter where they commit their atrocities on either side of the border.”