US counterterrorism forces will intensify combat operations against ISIS-affiliated extremists in eastern Afghanistan during the government's unilateral ceasefire with Taliban for Eid Al Fitr, the top US general in Kabul said on Friday.
Gen John Nicholson said the fight against ISIS in the southern part of Nangarhar province had already been intensifying this year and would be further stepped up during the ceasefire, which does not apply to non-Taliban opposition groups.
Gen Nicholson, who was attending a meeting of Nato defence ministers in Brussels to provide updates on the war in Afghanistan, said he could not predict whether the Taliban would join the ceasefire announced this week by President Ashraf Ghani. He expressed no concern that a unilateral ceasefire would give the Taliban breathing room to regroup and rearm.
"The potential benefit is greater than the risk," he said, expressing hope that what Mr Ghani called a week-long pause could lead to something more substantial and improve prospects for actual peace negotiations. The Taliban has insisted that it would negotiate only with Washington, but the US insists that it talk to the Afghan government.
Whether it remains a unilateral action or not, US forces will remain prepared to respond to any Taliban attacks, Gen Nicholson said. The US has about 8,400 troops providing non-combat support for Afghan security forces fighting the Taliban; separately, several thousand US combat troops are fighting Al Qaeda and ISIS-affiliated groups.
Gen Nicholson said the ceasefire announced on Thursday coincided with stepped up US counterterrorism efforts in the east.
"These will continue, in fact will be intensified during this period of ceasefire," he said told reporters traveling with US Defence Secretary James Mattis.
He said operations in Nangarhar this year have succeeded in squeezing the space the ISIS-affiliated fighters there have to operate.
The general said the international financial network that supports the ISIS-affiliates in Afghanistan have been "degraded" in the period since ISIS in Syria has been largely dismantled.
Gen Nicholson, who has commanded the US-led military coalition in Afghanistan since March 2016, spoke with measured optimism about prospects for compelling the Taliban to enter peace negotiations with the Afghan government.
US officials have talked up the prospects for peace many times over the course of the 17-year war in Afghanistan, only to be disappointed. When President Donald Trump announced last August that he was committed to winning the war with a revamped strategy, he said the goal was to compel the Taliban — with help from Pakistan and other interested nations — to seek peace. However, a US government watchdog agency recently reported that it saw few signs that this strategy was working, while acknowledging that the Afghan security forces are getting better training.
Gen Nicholson, however, credited Mr Trump's policy with producing early signs that the Taliban might be considering peace talks.
"I do think the policy is working. It just needs more time," he said.
He acknowledged that the war was complicated by the involvement of other outside powers, including Russia, which has said it became involved out of concern that ISIS-affiliated groups in Afghanistan would spread to other parts of Central Asia.
"We are concerned about any external enablement [of the Taliban]," Gen Nicholson said. "We do believe that the Russians have increased this kind of activity." He characterised this as "small-scale support" for the insurgency.