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Even As Afghan Forces Beat IS Back, Military Casualties Are On The Rise

Afghan National Army soldiers in an undated photo.
Afghan National Army soldiers in an undated photo.

Afghan forces are sustaining unprecedented numbers of casualties even as they have helped thwart plans by the Islamic State (IS) to overrun a strategic corner of their country.

The alarming casualty rates follow record numbers of Afghan police and Army soldiers being killed in insurgent attacks last year.

General John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, says the majority of casualties resulted from Taliban attacks on fixed Afghan positions.

"This year, we're seeing more tactical success [by the Afghans] on the battlefield but more casualties, as well," Nicholson told journalists on July 10. "It's when they're in a defensive posture, such as in checkpoints being overrun, is where the majority of the casualties are occurring."

While he didn’t disclose this year’s figures, last year around 19,000 Afghan police and Army soldiers were killed or wounded in combat.

A spokesman later told Reuters that Nicholson was referring to an increase so far in this year compared to 2015. The unnamed spokesman noted that the insurgents continued their offensive during an unusually mild winter.

Despite the high casualty figures, Afghan forces have so far prevented insurgents from overrunning a major population center after briefly losing the northern city of Kunduz to the Taliban last September.

A return of U.S. forces, new leadership, and airpower seem to have prevented the Taliban from overrunning Lashkar Gah, the capital of Afghanistan’s largest province, Helmand. Strategically located close to Iran and bordering Pakistan, the province has seen many of its rural regions captured by the Taliban since last spring.

Afghan forces perhaps have more to show in the east of the country. In mountainous Nangarhar Province, along the border with Pakistan, Afghan forces have successfully beaten back IS after local affiliates of the ultra-radical Islamist group, which now controls parts of Syria and Iraq, emerged in late 2014. Over the following year, they expanded their control by often resorting to extreme violence against Afghan civilians and security forces.

With the aid of U.S. air strikes since January, Afghan forces have managed to reclaim large swathes of rural Nangarhar from IS.

Nicholson said the amount of territory where IS has a presence in Nangarhar has been reduced to just three districts from a maximum of about nine last year.

"Is it as large as it once was? No. Are we encouraged by the reduction? Absolutely. But we need to keep the pressure on," he said.

With reporting by Reuters

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