- The Washington Times - Friday, June 8, 2018

BRUSSELS — Afghan and American commanders are planning to leverage the anticipated lull in fighting, stemming from the proposed cease-fire with the Taliban, to turn up the pressure on Islamic State’s factions in the country, the top U.S. commander said Friday.

Afghan commando units backed by American special operations forces currently carrying out combat operations against the Islamic State’s cell in the country, known as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria - Khorasan Group or ISIS-K, in eastern Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province could intensify in the days and weeks following the announced cease-fire.

“These [operations] will continue, in fact will even be intensified, during this period of cease-fire,” against the Taliban, Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said regarding the ongoing operation against ISIS-K in Nangarhar.

“Our goal is their complete destruction … there is no appeal for ISIS among the Afghan people,” the four-star general told a select group of reporters here, ahead of addressing alliance’s military leaders on the progress of the 18-year war.

Afghan-led operations against ISIS-K enclaves in the country’s northern province of Jowzjan have “started to disintegrate” under military pressure from Afghan and coalition forces, said Gen. Nicholson. The anticipated acceleration of military operations against ISIS will focus on the group’s redoubts in Nangarhar, which have been underway since April as part of Operation Hamza.

“They are intensifying now, we have already started … and that is going to continue,” throughout the duration of the Taliban cease-fire, set in motion a day earlier by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Gen. Nicholson said.

Under the cease-fire, Afghan forces will refrain from carrying out offensive operations against Taliban targets until the Eid-al-Fitr holiday marking the end of Ramadan, which is slated to begin on June 14th.

While the U.S. is backing Kabul’s call for a lull in fighting against the Taliban, it will continue to conduct combat operations against the Islamic State cells and al Qaeda elements still active in the country.

However, concerns over the Taliban’s ability to rearm and regroup during the cease-fire amid the proposed ramp-up of operations against ISIS, is casting a shadow over Mr. Ghani’s unprecedented call to suspend fighting.

Gen. Nicholson on Friday pushed back against the notion, saying U.S. and NATO commanders would keep a careful eye on Taliban leaders, poised to respond immediately to any violation of the cease-fire.

“We are going to take all the requisite steps to defend ourselves and our NATO allies, if somebody chooses not to be a party to this [cease fire] and take advantage of it,” he said.

Mr. Ghani’s proffer of a cease-fire comes less than a week after a suicide bombing targeting a high-profile meeting of top religious leaders in Kabul left seven dead and scores wounded. The meeting of senior Islamic clerics was to condemn the use of suicide attacks against other Muslims in Afghanistan. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the strike, which was the latest in several to hit the Afghan capital over the last several months.

On Friday, a suicide bomber launched an attack on the home of Afghan lawmaker Fraidoon Mohmand at his home in Jalalabad City in Nangarhar. Local police killed the bomber before he was able to enter the Mr. Mohamand’s compound, but not before detonating the explosive device, killing a police officer and wounding four more in the explosion.

When asked Friday whether the cease-fire would allow American and Afghan commanders to flood additional troops and weapons into the anti-ISIS fight, while continuing to protect local and coalition forces deployed elsewhere in the replied: “Conceivably.”

“We are going to leave resources devoted to protecting our forces and watching the enemy … while intensifying the pressure on ISIS,” Gen. Nicholson said.

“I do not know what the Taliban will do, but we are prepared either way,” he added.

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