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U.S. Soldier's Death Highlights Threat Of ISIS In Afghanistan


An American soldier was killed in Afghanistan over the weekend. He was the first U.S. casualty in Afghanistan this year. Thirty-seven-year-old Staff Sergeant Mark De Alencar of Edgewood, Md., a Green Beret, leaves behind a wife and five children. Here's what his former high school teacher, Kilo Mack, had to say about him.

KILO MACK: I just recall a conversation that we had cause we're going some years back now - just how excited he was about him saying that he was joining the Army and how he's seen this as an opportunity to better himself in his life.

CORNISH: De Alencar was killed fighting ISIS in Afghanistan. And for more on that, we turn to NPR's Tom Bowman. Welcome to the studio, Tom.


CORNISH: Now, when we hear ISIS, we generally think about Iraq. We've been talking more and more about Syria. What kind of inroads has ISIS made in Afghanistan?

BOWMAN: Well, Audie, I was in this very area two years ago with NPR colleagues. This is northeastern Afghanistan right along the Pakistan border, the province of Nangarhar. The ISIS presence was just starting at that time in the spring of 2015. And while we were there, ISIS mounted its first attack. It was a line of people at an ATM machine. Several dozen were killed. The ISIS presence in this small area of the province over time grew to more than 2,000 fighters. But with U.S. and Afghan commandos fighting them, U.S. officials say they're now at about 800 fighters.

CORNISH: Now, I understand the Islamic State is not aligned with the element the U.S. and Afghan forces have long been fighting, the Taliban. How are the aims of these two groups different?

BOWMAN: Well, you almost have to look at this as like two gangs fighting for territory. The Taliban are focused on taking back control of Afghanistan, just like they did in the 1990s. And ISIS, of course, wants to create a large caliphate throughout the Muslim world.

Now, the Taliban don't want ISIS there. They're fighting them, too, along with the Americans and the Afghans. And many of those fighting for ISIS used to fight for the Taliban. Many are Afghan, others from Pakistan, some foreign fighters as well from other countries. One American commander said back in 2015 they're basically switching jerseys now, fighting for a new team.

CORNISH: So how does the presence of ISIS complicate the U.S. effort to wind down involvement in Afghanistan generally?

BOWMAN: Well, if anything, the American involvement could wind up. There are now some 8,500 Americans in Afghanistan, and they have two jobs - training the Afghan forces and also going on combat missions with Afghan commandos, fighting ISIS and al-Qaida. This is the so-called counterterror mission. Now, the Taliban have been growing in strength over the past year. They took back some 15 percent more territory from the Afghan government forces. And as we see with Staff Sergeant De Alencar's death, the terrorist groups are still a threat as well.

CORNISH: There's obviously a new commander in chief in charge. Any indication President Trump will take a different approach to Afghanistan than President Obama?

BOWMAN: You know, I don't think so. The top commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, has called for several thousand more troops. He says the fight with the Taliban is at a stalemate. We don't know at this point exactly what they'll be doing, those extra troops he's called for. I'm told he's coming up with a proposal now. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is still considering whether to send those additional troops, though some could also come from NATO countries, too.

I do know that President Trump listens very carefully to Defense Secretary Mattis, listens to his advice. So my guess is if Secretary Mattis says we need additional troops in Afghanistan, I think the president will agree with him.

CORNISH: Tom Bowman, thanks so much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Audie.

CORNISH: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. And on Morning Edition tomorrow, the commander of the next rotation of troops heading into Afghanistan.

BRIGADIER GENERAL ROGER TURNER: The mission really is to train, advise and assist both the Afghan National Army and the Afghan police in the Helmand Province.

CORNISH: Marine Brigadier General Roger Turner describes what his forces will be expected to do, tomorrow on Morning Edition. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.