Reuters International

By Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States has carried out 70 to 80 air strikes against Islamic State in Afghanistan in the three months since U.S. forces were given broader authority to target the militants, a U.S. military spokesman said on Thursday.

Before January, the U.S. military could only strike Islamic State in Afghanistan under narrow circumstances, such as for protection of troops.

Military spokesman Brigadier General Charles Cleveland said the air strikes had decreased the capacity of the group in Afghanistan, where fighters loyal to Islamic State have emerged to challenge the larger Afghan Taliban in pockets of the country.

Cleveland said about 70 to 80 percent of the air strikes between January and the end of March were in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar.

"The capacity of Daesh, we believe has been lessened and their overall footprint in Nangarhar, we do believe, has been lessened as well," Cleveland said. Daesh is an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

The U.S. military has previously said there are between 1,000 and 3,000 Islamic State members in Afghanistan. Cleveland said that number was now probably closer to the lower estimate.

He said the group controlled about six to eight districts a few months ago, but that number was now closer to two to three districts.

"We do think that they still pose a potential real threat and again just based on their past performance, they have got the ability to catch fire very quickly," Cleveland said.

He also said that the southern province of Helmand was not on the verge of falling into the hands of the Taliban, but it was a "difficult, contested area." In February, Afghan forces pulled out of some parts of the province after months of heavy fighting with Taliban insurgents.

Helmand, a mainly desert region bordering Pakistan, is of strategic and symbolic importance as a heartland of the Taliban. The province sits along major smuggling routes for drugs and weapons. It accounts for the biggest share of opium cultivation, a principal source of revenue for the Taliban.

More American and British troops died in Helmand than in any other province of Afghanistan since arriving after the fall of Taliban rulers in late 2001. The United States and its allies invaded following the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; editing by Grant McCool)

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