The Cable

U.S. Has ‘Turned the Corner’ in Afghanistan, Top General Says

The Trump administration brings a new strategy but same old promises to the 16-year war.

Afghan National Army soldiers march during a military exercise on Oct. 17. (Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images)
Afghan National Army soldiers march during a military exercise on Oct. 17. (Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images)

After 16 years of war, the United States and its Afghan partners “have turned the corner” and “momentum is now with Afghan security forces,” the top U.S. general there told reporters on Tuesday.

Gen. John Nicholson, head of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said the Trump administration’s plan to beef up the U.S. battlefield presence is a “game-changer” that puts Kabul’s battered forces “on a path to a win.”

Nicholson is at least the eighth top commander in the last decade to forecast a pathway to victory in a war that has dragged on nearly all century, and his optimistic forecasts contrast starkly with deteriorating Afghan government control and a resurgent Taliban.

Nevertheless, Nicholson said that over the next two years, U.S. troops will work to double Afghanistan’s special operations forces, dial up airstrikes, and deploy more than 1,000 U.S. troops into combat alongside Afghan forces for the first time since the end of official combat operations in early 2015.

The renewed pressure will force the Taliban to “reconcile, face irrelevance, or die,” Nicholson said, promising that “we will be here until the job is done.”

The United States currently has about 14,000 troops in Afghanistan, after President Donald Trump deployed an additional 3,000 in the fall. At the height of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, there were 100,000 troops on the ground, yet the Taliban hung on.

U.S. commanders, defense officials, and even presidents have not been shy about predicting a win in Afghanistan. In 2007, Gen. Dan McNeill declared that “we have [seen] great progress and significant gains in the Afghan National Army,” which was on track to take over the combat duties. Afghan units wouldn’t take over the fighting until January 2015.

In 2011, President Barack Obama boasted that the United States had “turned a corner” in the fight after his 33,000 troop surge in 2010. During a visit that same month to Kabul, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates proclaimed “we have enjoyed a lot of success over the last year to 18 months,” and if Afghan forces can hold those gains, “we can say we’ve turned a corner here in Afghanistan.”

Before handing over command of the war in July 2011, Gen. David Petraeus reported that Afghan forces had turned a corner, having said months prior that “the momentum of the Taliban has been halted in much of the country and reversed in some important areas.”

In a September 2012 speech, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that the Obama surge “did accomplish its objectives of reversing the Taliban momentum on the battlefield and dramatically increasing the size and capability of the Afghan national security forces,” adding, “we have turned the corner.”

But the Afghan forces haven’t been able to hold those gains, and the Taliban has regained control over huge chunks of territory. According to an October report released by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), a congressionally mandated watchdog, the Afghan central government’s control “deteriorated to its lowest level” since SIGAR began analyzing data in 2015. The government only controls about 56 percent of the country, a six-point decline from 2016.

Since the end of “combat operations” for U.S. and NATO forces in January 2015, Afghan forces have taken staggering losses as the Taliban has regrouped and retaken territory that American forces had secured through fierce fighting during the Obama surge.

To begin to claw that back, Nicholson confirmed Tuesday that over 1,000 U.S. troops will begin accompanying Afghan forces on combat missions that will place Americans at “greater risk,” but will allow for more airstrikes and increased tactical advice to Afghan units in the fight.

And the fighting has been intense. In the first four months of this year, 2,531 Afghan security forces were killed and 4,238 wounded, according to figures released by SIGAR. About 7,000 Afghan soldiers were killed in combat in 2016.

The government in Kabul has since asked the Pentagon to classify casualty figures, obscuring a key metric about the effectiveness of a force American taxpayers have spent over $60 billion to train and equip.

But the top U.S. general said he was confident that some additional U.S. troops and support for Afghan forces will somehow prevail where previous troop surges did not.

“The Taliban cannot win in the face of the pressures that I outlined,” Nicholson said.

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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