Afghan security forces backed by American air support have conducted “successful” operations against the Islamic State (IS) group in Afghanistan during the past year, reducing the number of its militants to about 700.

U.S. military spokesman Brigadier General Charles Cleveland provided the latest assessment Wednesday at a news conference in Kabul.  He praised Afghan partners for their successes against the affiliates of the Middle East-based terrorist group.

Cleveland said a year ago there were somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 IS members mainly in eastern Nangarhar province near the border with Pakistan.  

“They were occupying almost 11 districts in that area and they were bringing all sorts of pain and pressure to the people of southern Nangarhar,” the spokesman added.  

“We believe that there are approximately 700 members of ISIS, perhaps even less now based on the operations, that are still contained to less than three districts down in southern Nangarhar,” said Cleveland.

He said Afghan forces launched a fresh operation in two districts in the province about a month ago with the assistance of U.S. airpower, and the effort is progressing well.

The spokesman reiterated that IS militants are primarily active in Nangarhar and in nearby districts of neighboring Kunar province, but he denied the existence of the terrorist outfit in northern Afghan regions, citing intelligence gathered by the U.S. military.

Cleveland said the U.S. military was able to kill 12 top leaders of IS, including its regional chief, in 2016, degrading the terrorist threat in Afghanistan.

Russia, Iran ties with Taliban criticized

Cleveland again criticized Russia and Iran for maintaining overt contacts with the Taliban insurgency, saying it undermines the Afghan government’s efforts against terrorist forces in the country.

Moscow and Tehran believe the emergence of IS loyalists in Afghanistan poses a threat to their regional interests and territorial boundaries, and justifies their ties with the Taliban, saying the Islamist insurgency is fighting IS to prevent it from expanding its influence in the war-torn country.

“Our view is that any engagement with the Taliban by external actors is ultimately going to be counterproductive and it is going to undermine the legitimate efforts of the government of Afghanistan,” warned the U.S. military spokesman.

But Russian authorities insist that IS is trying to establish a foothold in volatile northern Afghan provinces to try to export its terrorist activities to neighboring Central Asian republics to threaten Moscow’s interests.

IS launched its extremist operations along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border regions two years ago, calling itself Islamic State Khorasan Province.

The group has stepped up attacks on both sides of the border in recent months, mainly targeting minority Shi’ite Muslims.

The latest such attack took place last month in southern Pakistan where an IS suicide bomber struck a crowded Sufi shrine, killing more than 90 devotees, mostly members of the Shi’ite community.

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