Nicholson Says Situation in Afghanistan Has Fundamentally Changed
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan --
The South Asia Strategy has fundamentally changed the situation in Afghanistan, and the Resolute Support mission commander believes it may provide the key for reconciliation and peace in the country.
Army Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr. said the military parts of President Donald J. Trump’s strategy are now in place and they are already making a difference. The general spoke to reporters traveling with Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The strategy calls for more military advisors working with lower-echelon units, Nicholson said. It also calls for more enablers, including additional air support and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets.
Afghans on the Offensive
The strategy is helping because the main effort in the U.S. Central Command area of operations has shifted from Iraq and Syria to Afghanistan, Nicholson said. These additional capabilities “will enable the Afghans to get on the offensive,” the general told reporters.
This is already happening, and Nicholson highlighted a successful operation by the Afghan 201st Corps in the eastern part of the country. “That is one of dozens of offensive operations that is going to occur,” he said. “We will do these operations simultaneously around the country through the summer leading up to the elections.”
The Afghan forces will be able to do this because of the support provided by the train, advise and assist effort by NATO and the addition of the Army’s 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade and other trainers. “We couldn’t do this in the past because we didn’t have adequate levels of resources here,” Nicholson said.
In December 2016, Nicholson was still sending troops home. “We were going into 2017 at the lowest level of forces we had ever been at in Afghanistan,” he said. The South Asia strategy has changed the situation, he added.
Overall, the objective of the campaign in Afghanistan is reconciliation of the Taliban back into the nation. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani extended an olive branch to the Taliban last month as part of the Kabul Peace Process Conference. The Taliban wrote an open letter to the American people, which specifically said the group is ready to engage in dialogue.
This may be “a unique moment” to begin talks, Nicholson said. “We’re seeing offers out on the table about peace,” he said. “Now, there is a lot of work left to be done -- these processes take awhile -- but I would still say this is extremely positive.”
The big questions moving forward are how the Afghan government and the Taliban get to a point where these offers translate into peace in Afghanistan and how this creates reconciliation. The effort requires pressure on the Taliban diplomatically, socially and militarily, Nicholson said.
Use of Diplomacy
The United States and coalition nations are applying diplomatic pressure to stop Pakistan from providing a safe haven for the Taliban, the general said, and are pushing for an international consensus for peace.
On the social side, there is also pressure on the Taliban. One is religious pressure in the form of an Ulema Council in Indonesia that soon will delegitimize jihad in Afghanistan.
Social pressure is also inherent in elections in Afghanistan later this year. If done credibly, the elections will lead to increased legitimacy for the government “and I believe will further delegitimize the Taliban,” Nicholson said.
Then there is military pressure, designed to keep pressure on the Taliban and give the group no space or time to plan attacks on the government and innocent civilians.
The Afghan forces will increase their offensive capabilities by expanding their special operations forces and growing the Afghan air force, Nicholson said. The Afghan air force -- long under development -- is flexing its muscles, and over the past year Afghans flew half of the sorties and conducted more than 50 percent of the actual airstrikes.
On the ground, the Afghan commandos have been so successful on the battlefield they will be doubled in size. This is a process that will take some time. The new commandos won’t arrive on the battlefield until next year, Nicholson said, but that will bring a marked increase of pressure on the enemy. There has also been a concomitant improvement in the offensive operations done by the conventional Afghan units, he said.
The pressure will be on the Taliban to reconcile, Nicholson told reporters. The conversation has begun, he added, with many of the talks happening behind the scenes. Some Taliban won’t wait until the parent group negotiates reconciliation, he said, noting that some groups of Taliban are already peeling away. To facilitate this, provisions are necessary for reintegration of the former Taliban fighters and their families, the general said.
While reconciliation is between Afghans, there is a role for the United States in the process, the general said.
Stability in Afghanistan
“Our ultimate objective is stability in Afghanistan that protects our interests, the interests of our allies, and brings peace to Afghanistan so it is not a platform for terrorist attacks on the West,” he said. “So, yes, there is a place in the process for the United States and its allies to assist Afghans with the reconciliation [and] reintegration effort.” Now is the time to define the role, he said.
There is no purely military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan, Nicholson said, and the conflict must end in reconciliation. “I would say the military effort is necessary, but not sufficient to get us to reconciliation,” he said. “There’s a significant political component and diplomatic component that is necessary for this to happen.” It is entirely possible that negotiating and fighting continue at the same time, he acknowledged, as it did in Northern Ireland and Colombia.
Afghan elections are coming up, but a date has not yet been officially announced. Once it is announced, there is a six-month process to allow people to register to vote, register to run and so on, before the election may be held, the general explained.
“I absolutely believe that elections must occur this year, and that has been our consistent message,” Nicholson said.
(Follow Jim Garamone on Twitter: @GaramoneDoDNews)