US and Afghan troops likely killed the leader of ISIS’ Afghanistan affiliate in a raid in Nangarhar province this week, the Pentagon has said, as US Marines returned to Helmand, where American troops faced heated fighting until NATO’s combat mission ended in 2014.
The US raid, which occurred overnight Wednesday-Thursday, targeted Abdul Hasib, whom the Pentagon called the ISIS leader in Afghanistan.
“The thought is we got him, but we are not certain,” Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said.
Davis said about 50 US special forces and 40 Afghan commandos had been chopered in to the Mohmand Valley late Wednesday near the compound used by Hasib.
His group is affiliated with ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and the US military calls it ISIS-Khorasan, or ISIS-K.
The troops’ arrival was met with immediate and ferocious opposition, and early on the two Rangers, sergeants Joshua Rodgers and Cameron Thomas, were shot and killed.
“We are investigating the circumstances of the combat deaths of the two Army Rangers in the beginning of what was an intense three-hour firefight,” Davis said.
“It is possible the Rangers were struck by friendly fire.”
One other US commando was wounded in the raid.
US-Forces Afghanistan said that if confirmed, the death of the Hasib and his associates would “significantly degrade ISIS-K operations in Afghanistan and help reach our goal of destroying them in 2017.”
The Pentagon estimates about 1,000 ISIS fighters remain in Afghanistan.
The jihadists established a foothold there in early 2015 and their numbers now are about half what they were at their peak, the Pentagon says.
Meanwhile, the return of US troops to Helmand Saturday was the latest sign foreign forces are being increasingly drawn back into the conflict.
The deployment of some 300 Marines to the poppy-growing southern province, first announced in January, came one day after the resurgent Taliban announced the launch of their “spring offensive”, and as the Trump administration seeks to craft a new strategy in Afghanistan.
Commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan General John Nicholson attended a handover ceremony marking the return of the prestigious force, the Marines first to be deployed in Afghanistan since 2014, an AFP photographer said.
Part of a troop rotation, they will arrive in stages, eventually numbering some 300 who will take part in NATO’s train, assist and advise mission.
Helmand for years was the centerpiece of the US and British military intervention in Afghanistan — only for it to slip deeper into a quagmire of instability.
The militants effectively control or contest 10 of Helmand’s 14 districts, blighted by a huge opium harvest that helps fund the insurgency.