WASHINGTON: The Pak-Afghan region has the highest concentration of terrorist groups in the world, warns Gen John W. Nicholson, the commander of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan.

In an annual assessment of US military operations in Afghanistan this year, the general also took credit for rescuing former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s son from a militant hideout in Afghanistan earlier this year and for killing the perpetrator of the Dec 16, 2014 terrorist attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar.

At a recent news briefing at the Pentagon, Gen Nicholson said that there were 98 US-designated terrorist groups around the world and 20 of them were in the Pak-Afghan region.

“This represents the highest concentration of terrorist groups anywhere in the world,” he added.

Thirteen of these 20 groups were based in Afghanistan and seven in Pakistan.

Gen Nicholson said that the groups operating in this region often “mix and converge”, which made them even more dangerous.

“For example, Islamic State of Khorasan today is formed of members of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and even some former members of the Afghan Taliban,” he said.

Throughout the year, US counter-terrorism (CT) forces focused on these groups, conducting over 350 operations against Al Qaeda and the militant Islamic State group in 2016 and dozens more against other groups.

In these operations, US forces killed or captured nearly 50 leaders of AQIS (Al Qaeda Indian Subcontinent) leaders. Additionally, about 200 other members of Al Qaeda and the Al Qaeda Islamic State groups were killed or captured as well.

“Our CT forces rescued the son of the former Pakistani prime minister Gilani in a raid against Al Qaeda in eastern Afghanistan… and killed five emirs of these 20 terrorist groups,” he said. “We killed Hamidullah, the emir of the Islamic Jihad Union, and Omar Khalifa, who is the Tariq Gidar Group emir.”

The Tariq Gidar Group carried out the attack on the Army Public School, Peshawar, and killed over 130 children. They also attacked the Bacha Khan University where they killed dozens of professors and students, as well as a Pakistan air force base.

On Oct 23, US forces killed Farouq al-Qatari, the emir of eastern Afghanistan, for Al Qaeda Islamic State.

He was also their external operations director. Qatari and his accomplices were involved in planning threats against the United States last year.

The US forces also killed Mullah Mansour, the emir of Taliban and a designated UN terrorist, Gen Nicholson said.

He said he was not in a position to comment on a recent telephonic conversation between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and US President-elect Donald Trump but he was looking forward to meeting the new Pakistani Chief of Army Staff Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa. “I’ll meet him upon my return to the region (this) week,” he added. “And there are many areas of mutual cooperation with the Pakistanis with respect to the border, our joint efforts against terrorism and so forth. And so, we’re looking forward to working closely with them going forward.”

While responding to a question, Gen Nicholson said the Haqqani network still posed the greatest threat to the United States and its coalition partners and to the Afghans.

He recalled that the Haqqanis, who were still holding five American citizens hostage, remained a principal concern for US forces. “They do enjoy sanctuary inside Pakistan,” he added.

Published in Dawn, December 9th, 2016