WASHINGTON — Two American troops were killed and a third was wounded while battling Islamic State loyalists overnight in eastern Afghanistan, U.S. officials said Thursday, marking the latest in a series of violent developments as the Trump administration contemplates whether to escalate the 15-year war.
The troops' identities were not immediately disclosed, pending family notifications. The wounded service member did not require medical evacuation, a U.S. military spokesman in Kabul, Navy Capt. William Salvin, told Military Times. He characterized the injury as a minor wound though it's unclear whether the service member has returned to duty. Year to date, three Americans have been killed in action in Afghanistan. At least 21 others have been wounded by the relentless violence there.
The incident Wednesday night occurred in southern Nangarhar province, in Achin district, a restive region along the Pakistan border that has become a stronghold for the group known as ISIS Khorasan, or ISIS-K. It happened during a raid in which an unspecified number of Americans were partnered with Afghan forces, officials said. It's the same area where, two weeks ago, the U.S. launched a massive airstrike on an ISIS tunnel complex and where, a week before that, an American special forces soldier was killed by enemy small arms fire.
"The raid was part of our continuing campaign to destroy ISIS-K," Salvin told Military Times. "It is part of Operation Hamza, which began in early March."
Afghanistan has experienced a surge of violence in recent weeks, with U.S. and Afghan military personnel becoming regular targets. The latest incident comes as President Donald Trump and his national security team wrestle with whether to deploy potentially thousands of additional troops to reverse what the top commander there has declared a stalemate, a conflict that's grown more complicated by alleged attempts by Russiaand Iran to undermine the U.S. and its allies.
The U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan is focused on two objectives: training Afghan security forces to confront the Taliban, who remain the Kabul government's greatest adversary, and conducting aggressive counter-terror missions targeting ISIS-K and the host of al-Qaida offshoots who are active there.
ISIS Khorasan is an affiliate of the Islamic State's core network in Syria and Iraq. It receives tactical advice and some financial support from outside Afghanistan, but U.S. officials have so far not observed an influx of fighters from either country. An estimated 400 to 700 fighters are active throughout Nangarhar and Kunar provinces, Salvin said.
Speaking at the Pentagon in December, the top American commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. John Nicholson, estimated that his forces had killed about 500 ISIS fighters throughout 2016, including 12 of the group's most senior leaders. Those losses accounted for about 25 to 30 percent of ISIS-K's total size, he said at the time, and reduced its foothold in Afghanistan from nine districts to three.
Despite such heavy losses, though, the group remains a potent threat.
"The fight against ISIS-K is important for the world, but sadly, it is not without sacrifice," Nicholson said in a news release issued Thursday.
"On behalf of all U.S. forces and our coalition partners, I offer our deepest sympathies to the families, friends, and fellow service members of our fallen comrades."
About 8,400 U.S. personnel remain in Afghanistan along with approximately 5,000 NATO troops. Nicholson has said thousands more are needed to accelerate training for the Afghans.
The White House has not indicated where it stands on that proposition. Trump has said only that he wants to see "progress" made in America's longest war.
Wednesday's deadly attack follows separate visits to Kabul this month by two senior administration officials, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. Each indicated the U.S. is committed to supporting the Afghan government and promoting reconciliation with the Taliban, a prospect that would appear more challenging with Russia now arming those fighters.
Andrew deGrandpre is Military Times' senior editor and Pentagon bureau chief. On Twitter: @adegrandpre