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ISIS Leader In Afghanistan Killed In U.S. Strike, Officials Say

The head of the Islamic State in Afghanistan, Abu Sayeed Orakzai, has been killed in a U.S. strike, according to Afghan officials. The U.S. military said the strike took place Saturday in Nangarhar province, close to the Pakistan border.

"I can confirm that U.S. forces conducted a counterterrorism strike ... which targeted a senior leader of a designated terrorist organization," Lt. Col. Martin O'Donnell, a spokesperson for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said in a statement.

O'Donnell also pointed to comments via Twitter by a deputy spokesperson of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani that Orakzai, described as the emir of ISIS in Afghanistan, had died in the strike.

The U.S. has killed a succession of ISIS leaders in Afghanistan. In July 2017, the Pentagon said a strike killed Abu Sayed — the heir to Abdul Hasib, who died three months earlier. A drone strike in July 2016 killed Hafiz Sayed Khan.

Discussing the weekend operation, O'Donnell drew a distinction between counter-terrorism efforts against the Taliban and groups such as al-Qaida and ISIS-K, or ISIS-Khorasan, a name for the extremist group's outpost in Afghanistan.

"These efforts are unlike the nationwide Afghan-led offensive targeting Taliban irreconcilables who refuse to listen to the calls of the Afghan people for them to take the courageous step towards peace and reconciliation," he said. "These efforts target the real enemies of Afghanistan, the same enemies who threaten America."

Both the U.S. and the Taliban oppose ISIS for different reasons. The U.S., having beaten back ISIS in Iraq and in Syria, is working to prevent ISIS from gaining a foothold in Afghanistan, while the Taliban sees ISIS as a potential rival for recruits.

Earlier this month, the U.S. reportedly met with the Taliban to discuss possible peace talks to conclude a war that has now lasted nearly 17 years.

Swaths of Afghanistan are firmly under Taliban control. Despite talk of potential peace negotiations — and a cease-fire offer from the Afghan government — the Islamist extremist group recently mounted a surprise attack on the city of Ghazni, seeking to solidify its position in a province southwest of Kabul.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.