Five U.S. troops were wounded recently while fighting Islamic State militants in Afghanistan, the latest sign of an expanding U.S. mission in a war that just a few years ago appeared to be winding down.
"I'd characterize it as a clearing operation," said Army Gen. John "Mick" Nicholson, the commanding general of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
The expanded authorities marked a significant shift from 2015, when the U.S. military was trying to reduce its role in direct combat and limit air strikes to situations where U.S. personnel were at risk.
"I've been using those authorities daily since the president gave them to us. Greatly appreciate those," Nicholson said.
"The new authorities, which essentially allow us to support [Afghan security forces] while in offensive operations … come in very handy, and really help them to maintain the momentum that they're gaining," Nicholson said.
"And of course, using authorities does not always mean an airstrike," Nicholson said. "It may mean reconnaissance aircraft, it may mean armed reconnaissance, it may mean rotary-wing support. So, it enables me to use my combat enablers in support of the Afghans as they execute their strategic effects under their campaign plan."
The estimated size of the Islamic State faction, last year around 3,000, is not closer to 1,000 to 1,500, the general said.
ISIS is one of nine militant groups operating in Afghanistan that is officially designated as a terrorist organization by the United States. The Taliban, the largest of those groups, has mounted several high-profile suicide attacks this year but has failed to gain new territory, Nicholson said.
"Now, fighting season's not over. We anticipate we'll see other enemy attempts to regain territory in Helmand. But thus far, things are on a real positive trajectory," Nicholson said.
Nicholson noted that Afghan casualties are up about 20 percent compared to last year. But overall the Afghan Army's performance has improved, he said.
"They are doing some things very well this year, and we are seeing some progress."
But, he added, "the fight's not over."
Andrew Tilghman is the executive editor for Military Times. He is a former Military Times Pentagon reporter and served as a Middle East correspondent for the Stars and Stripes. Before covering the military, he worked as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle in Texas, the Albany Times Union in New York and The Associated Press in Milwaukee.