WASHINGTON – In back-to-back Congressional hearings Tuesday, the nation’s top civilian and uniformed authorities overseeing the U.S. military laid out the Trump administration’s new strategy for Afghanistan. Like most things in the military, the plan was reduced to an acronym: R4+S.
“Regionalize, realign, reinforce, reconcile and sustain.”
The new strategy:
• Looks at Afghanistan in a regional context — uprooting terrorist safe havens in Pakistan, but also leveraging India, Russian, Iran and China.
• Realigns international troops further down the chain of command to support conventional Afghan troops at the tactical level.
• Reinforces the efforts with some 3,000 U.S. and an undeclared number of international troops from at least 15 other countries.
• Forces the Taliban to erode and in a “war of wills” reconcile with the Afghan government through an Afghan-led peace process.
• Sustains a U.S. presence in the region and support for the Afghan government into the indefinite future as they manage the “residual violence.”
In addition, the U.S. will expand its own counterterrorism efforts against ISIS, al-Qaeda and other regional extremist groups.
In order to shrink the U.S. and other international ally commitments to the country, the Afghanistan government will have to be able to adequately defend its people and prevent the growth of extremist groups that could go on to threaten the U.S. and its allies. This means building up Afghan security institutions, like military education, but also the government at large.
“As we implement the strategy, we’re also tackling corruption – the single greatest roadblock to progress,” said Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis pledged to fight the widely documented fraud and abuse seen during the Afghanistan conflict, and hold accountable anyone responsible.
Dunford noted that building Afghanistan’s judicial system will be part of this process.
The conflict, which began with the U.S.-led NATO invasion in 2001 following the 9/11 terror attacks, has cost more than $1 trillion and killed over 92,000 in direct war violence – including over 3,500 U.S. troops and contractors.
Asked by Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) to explain to the American people why the U.S. should continue to fight the conflict, despite its high tolls, Mattis said:
“Why should we continue, sir, is to make certain that Americans can live safely. And when I advise the president on sending troops into a position where they can die, I have to know in my analysis that this is going to sufficiently contribute to the well-being of the American people.”
Dunford expanded on this, stating that terrorist organizations in the region could use ungoverned space to plan and launch attacks against the U.S. and its allies.
Mattis repeatedly said that the Defense Department would be transparent about its operations with the Congressional bodies responsible for overseeing the military. He said, however, that the department would not disclose the specific number of U.S. troops participating in the mission, their capabilities and the details of the missions that they will conduct to the public.
There are currently some 11,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, participating in a NATO-led mission to train, advise and assist the Afghan security forces with some 6,400 other international troops and a unilateral counterterrorism mission.
Asked by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) if he would be “honest with the American people” about troop numbers, Mattis replied: “No, ma’am, if it involves telling the enemy something that will help them.”
Dunford, asked why this strategy will work when 16 years of conflict with the Taliban has led to a “stalemate,” he noted that the effort to train the Afghan security forces has only been in swing for two years — when NATO turned over the combat mission. He said that during this two-year period, the international effort has not assisted the Afghan forces as much as they needed.
“My military assessment is that we drew down our advisory efforts to the Afghan forces too far and too fast. As a result, the Taliban expanded territorial and population control, and inflicted significant casualties on the Afghan army and police while we lost campaign momentum,” he said.
To support the Afghan security forces, NATO and the U.S. will work to expand the Afghan special forces while drawing down less capable forces; develop the Afghan air force; work with conventional forces at the tactical level, instead of only the special operations forces, providing them with timely NATO air, artillery and intelligence support.
In addition, Mattis said President Donald Trump gave him the authority to change the rules of engagement so that U.S. forces no longer need to be in contact with enemy forces in Afghanistan before employing airpower or artillery fire.
“We are no longer bound by the need for proximity to our forces. It used to be we have to basically be in contact with that enemy,” Mattis said. “… If they are in an assembly area, a training camp, we know they are an enemy and they are going to threaten the Afghan government or our people, [Gen. John Nicholson, the commander of U.S. an NATO forces in Afghanistan,] has the wherewithal to make that decision.”
Lawmakers questioned why, after 16 years of conflict with the U.S. and 10 years of conflict with the Soviets, the Taliban would agree to negotiate. Dunford and Mattis both explained it in terms of “hope” — taking away the hope away from the Taliban that they can wait out the international forces, and restoring hope in the Afghan people and security forces that they can decide their own fate.
“There was always a sense the the United States was going to pull out in 12 months. And, in fact, in Afghanistan it was known as the ‘Y2K effect’ — that the end of every year the expectation was that Afghanistan was going to be confronted with an enemy with no support,” said Duford.
He said the Taliban also “fed that message to their fighters,” motivating them to fight for one more year until the NATO coalition would leave. He said shift away from a timeline-based mindset has already had an impact on the Taliban, though right now the U.S cannot tell if that alone will push them to the negotiating table.
The check on whether the strategy is working will come when Afghanistan holds its presidential election next summer, Dunford said, when Afghan security forces will have to provide adequate protection to allow citizens to vote. Otherwise, Mattis said, the U.S. is tracking Afghan gains using some 200 benchmarks drafted with the Afghan government under President Ashraf Ghani.