July 12, 2016
BAGRAM AIR FIELD, AFGHANISTAN—The top U.S. general in Afghanistan says his forces are using the new authority they have been given to strike Taliban targets “almost daily” in support of the Afghan government’s efforts to rid the country of insurgents and terrorists.
Speaking at Bagram Air Field on Tuesday, General John “Mick” Nicholson, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said his troops are now better equipped to help Afghan forces take the offensive against the Taliban, and they have begun to carry out their mission in several areas.
Nicholson spoke to reporters accompanying U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who is on an unannounced visit to Afghanistan. In Kabul earlier Tuesday, Carter said the expanded authority that President Barack Obama granted to U.S. forces last month allows “much more efficient use and effective use” of both American and Afghan forces.
U.S. troops in Afghanistan can now attack Taliban fighters directly to gain a strategic advantage. Previously, American forces were only authorized to strike Taliban units if they were under attack or if their Afghan allies were facing imminent defeat.
Explaining the new rules of engagement for his troops, Nicholson used the example of last year’s lengthy battle for control of Kunduz, in northern Afghanistan. The Taliban launched a complex attack against Kunduz city in late April 2015, and over the course of several months the insurgents made major gains against Afghan forces, while U.S. forces were limited in their ability to join the fight.
Nicholson said U.S. troops were on “a defensive, reactive” footing during the prolonged Taliban offensive.
Only when Taliban forces attacking from three directions gained complete control of Kunduz, five months after their initial attack, were U.S. Army Special Forces able to take an active role in the battle. They made rapid progress in pushing back Taliban fighters and their allies, but that phase of the fighting also was marred by an erroneous American airstrike in early October. A U.S. warplane hunting for a Taliban command center mistakenly bombed a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders, killing dozens of patients and hospital staff.
Now that American forces have more clear-cut guidelines allowing them greater freedom to attack Taliban units, Nicholson said, U.S. assistance has helped Afghan forces expand their control outward from Kunduz city to a large area of that northern province.
Similarly, in southern Afghanistan, the U.S. is attacking Taliban fighters alongside Afghan troops in areas such as Kandahar Province’s Maiwand district, the U.S. commander said.
Carter’s trip to Afghanistan followed by less than a week Obama’s announcement that U.S. troop reductions will be slower than planned in the coming months. Total American forces in Afghanistan as of next January will be 8,400 troops, up from the force of 5,500 men and women originally scheduled to be on duty at the start of 2017.
Troops ‘over the horizon’
The Pentagon chief and his commander in Afghanistan both said several hundred troops will continue to support the NATO mission there from regional bases in unnamed countries.
“Some capabilities we put over the horizon,” Nicholson said, “but I’m very comfortable with them being where they are, and we can call them forward [to duty in Afghanistan] if necessary.”
The decision to place “some hundreds” of troops outside Afghanistan complicates the question of how many American forces actually are being withdrawn, since any of the units shifted to regional bases could be redeployed into the country on short notice.
Of the 8,400 American troops remaining in Afghanistan, about 3,000 are part of NATO’s Resolute Support mission, Nicholson said, serving primarily as advisers and trainers for Afghan forces. Roughly 2,150 other troops are part of a counterterrorism mission, known as Freedom’s Sentinel, which targets remnants of the al-Qaida terror network, pockets of Islamic State fighters trying to establish a foothold in eastern Afghanistan, and six other terror groups, the U.S. commander said, adding that the remaining American military presence — 3,200 to 3,300 troops — will serve as “enablers” for either or both of those missions.
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