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.
The five American special operations troops were injured by small arms fire and shrapnel while conducting joint operations with Afghans in southern Nangarhar province, home to the Islamic State’s offshoot there in Afghanistan, defense officials said Thursday.
"I'd characterize it as a clearing operation," said Army Gen. John "Mick" Nicholson, the commanding general of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
"They were clearing some of these areas ... in southern Nangarhar, where Daesh previously had control, and they were helping our Afghan partners to regain control of those areas," Nicholson told reporters Thursday, using an alternative term for the Islamic State group.
One of the troops was injured on July 24 and four were injured on July 25 in separate incidents, a defense official said. None of the injuries were life threatening, he added Nicholson said.
The operations in Nangarhar are an example of the expanding mission that President Barack Obama has approved this year for the roughly 10,000 U.S. troops who remain in Afghanistan.
In January, he gave American personnel U.S. forces there legal authority to strike the fledgling ISIS Islamic State faction under any circumstances. Then in In June, Obama approved U.S. air strikes and combat support for the Afghan army’s offensive operations against the Taliban.
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.
The total number of bombs dropped in air strikes nearly doubled during the first six months of this year compared to the same six months last year. Air Force data shows 545 weapons released from January to June compared to 298 for the same period in 2015.
"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."