Afghan al­lies de­fend gen­eral

Strat­egy plan de­layed as coun­try’s tur­moil mounts

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY PAMELA CON­STA­BLE

kabul — Afghans are alarmed by wide­spread re­ports that Pres­i­dent Trump has threat­ened to fire Gen. John W. Ni­chol­son Jr., the highly re­garded U.S. mil­i­tary com­man­der in this war-torn coun­try, and that Trump has also de­layed choos­ing a new mil­i­tary and po­lit­i­cal strat­egy Afghans have awaited anx­iously for the past six months.

Ni­chol­son, 61, the top U.S. mil­i­tary of­fi­cial in Afghanistan for the past 16 months, has be­come the best-known face of Wash­ing­ton here, work­ing closely with Afghan mil­i­tary and civil­ian of­fi­cials, and vo­cally ad­vo­cat­ing ex­panded U.S. mil­i­tary en­gage­ment, while the Tal­iban and other in­sur­gents con­tinue ag­gres­sive at­tacks across the coun­try.

Now, with two U.S. ser­vice mem­bers killed in the past week, Trump’s at­tack on Ni­chol­son for fail­ing to “win” the 16-year war has stunned Afghan of­fi­cials and po­lit­i­cal lead­ers. They said a clear sig­nal of con­tin­ued sup­port from Wash­ing­ton is ur­gently needed to keep the frag­ile Kabul gov­ern­ment on its feet amid an ex­plo­sion of public un­rest and or­ga­nized op­po­si­tion from a va­ri­ety of groups.

“Our big­gest im­me­di­ate worry is the lack of an Amer­i­can strat­egy,” said Omar Daudzai, a for­mer se­nior Afghan of­fi­cial. “We are fac­ing po­lit­i­cal tur­moil and a se­cu­rity cri­sis. Neigh­bor­ing gov­ern­ments are med­dling. We need an Amer­i­can com­mit­ment to sup­port the de­fense forces, elec­tions and demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions. Amer­ica’s rep­u­ta­tion is at stake in Afghanistan, and if this all goes bad, Amer­ica will lose its cred­i­bil­ity.”

Over the past sev­eral days, Afghan of­fi­cials and oth­ers here praised Ni­chol­son, say­ing he in­her­ited a pro­tracted and wors­en­ing con­flict but has worked closely with Afghan Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani on de­vel­op­ing a de­tailed four-year plan to sup­port Afghan se­cu­rity forces so they can de­fend the coun­try alone. With no per­ma­nent U.S. am­bas­sador here since De­cem­ber, the four-star gen­eral’s role has also taken on added diplo­matic im­por­tance.

Ob­servers in Kabul said Ni­chol­son, now on his fourth mil­i­tary tour in the coun­try, has earned wide re­spect for his hard work and out­reach to Afghans of all stripes. Last year, Ni­chol­son told a con­gres­sional com­mit­tee that since the at­tacks of Sept. 11, 2001, “the U.S. cam­paign in Afghanistan has largely de­fined my ser­vice.”

A U.S. mil­i­tary of­fi­cial here, speak­ing on the con­di­tion of anonymity, said Ni­chol­son “is not one to twist in the wind. He is fo­cus­ing on the mis­sion he was asked to carry out: a strat­egy to help the Afghans stand on their own feet. This is an Afghan con­flict, and every­one knows there is no quick and easy so­lu­tion. The main thing Pres­i­dent Ghani has asked us for is time.”

But a va­ri­ety of Afghans said the new con­tro­versy over Ni­chol­son, and fur­ther post­pone­ment of an an­nounced U.S. pol­icy af­ter months of drift, have aroused con­cern that Wash­ing­ton may aban­don its long­time role as a sup­porter of Afghan democ­racy, and pos­si­bly even the war ef­fort, at a time of grow­ing do­mes­tic un­rest and in­ter­fer­ence by for­eign re­gional pow­ers.

“These de­lays are not just a mat­ter of bu­reau­cracy. They are a mat­ter of life and death to the Afghan peo­ple,” said Davood Mo­ra­dian, di­rec­tor of the Afghan In­sti­tute for Strate­gic Stud­ies. The Tal­iban in­sur­gents, he said, are try­ing to “in­flu­ence the de­bate in Wash­ing­ton with these new at­tacks. The longer these de­lays con­tinue, the more in­no­cent lives will be lost.”

Mo­ra­dian said Trump “has a right to be an­gry” about the mil­i­tary stale­mate, “but he is at­tack­ing the wrong tar­get.” He said that Ni­chol­son has done “an admirable job of fill­ing the po­lit­i­cal and diplo­matic vac­uum” since Trump took of­fice and that he should not be blamed for the fail­ure of poli­cies set by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Un­der Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s pol­icy, U.S. and NATO forces peaked in 2009 at 140,000 troops, but most of them with­drew in 2014 with the war still hotly con­tested. Ni­chol­son heads a lim­ited as­sis­tance mis­sion of about 8,400 troops that ad­vise and train Afghan forces and pro­vide air com­bat sup­port.

The plan worked out by Ni­chol­son and Ghani calls for dou­bling the size of the Afghan spe­cial op­er­a­tions forces and bring­ing in hun­dreds of U.S. train­ers for the re­cruits, im­prov­ing the Afghan air force, pair­ing ad­vis­ers more closely with Afghan sol­diers, re­form­ing mil­i­tary lead­er­ship and com­bat­ing cor­rup­tion in the de­fense forces. Ghani has said he wants the mil­i­tary to be to­tally in­de­pen­dent af­ter four years.

But some ob­servers said Trump’s sharp crit­i­cism of Ni­chol­son at a tense July 19 meet­ing in the White House may in­di­cate he wants to scrap the en­tire plan, sup­ported by De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis, that would in­clude rais­ing the num­ber of U.S. troops by sev­eral thou­sand. Ac­cord­ing to news re­ports, the pres­i­dent re­peat­edly said he wanted to fire the gen­eral, leav­ing se­nior mil­i­tary and pol­icy aides stunned. There was no in­di­ca­tion of what al­ter­na­tives Trump is con­sid­er­ing.

“The pres­i­dent has un­der­mined his own gen­eral, and he has also un­der­mined the mis­sion,” said a for­mer Afghan se­cu­rity of­fi­cial, speak­ing on the con­di­tion of anonymity. “Ni­chol­son has now lost face in front of Afghans, his NATO coun­ter­parts and his of­fi­cers. What does this tell the troops un­der his com­mand? How can Afghan lead­ers ac­cept any com­mit­ment he makes when they know he does not carry the full faith and credit of the United States?”

The other miss­ing half of the equa­tion is a U.S. po­lit­i­cal pol­icy to­ward Afghanistan, which most ex­perts agree is even more im­por­tant than de­cid­ing how many troops to send or what they would do. Opin­ions among Afghans are di­vided on this is­sue, with some say­ing Wash­ing­ton needs to do more to strengthen the di­vided Ghani regime, and oth­ers say­ing it should fo­cus on build­ing in­sti­tu­tions rather than sup­port­ing in­di­vid­ual lead­ers.

“The blind spot in U.S. pol­icy is not about the troop num­bers, it is about un­crit­i­cally sup­port­ing Ghani,” said the for­mer se­cu­rity of­fi­cial, not­ing that the Afghan pres­i­dent’s pop­u­lar­ity has plum­meted as his gov­ern­ment faces grow­ing public in­se­cu­rity and po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion. “The U.S. should be re­ex­am­in­ing its po­lit­i­cal strat­egy. It should not be Ghani or bust.”

Gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, how­ever, said that Ghani’s goal is to strengthen demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions and re­form a cor­rupt po­lit­i­cal sys­tem, not seek per­sonal en­dorse­ments, and that a strong sig­nal of sup­port for those goals from the new ad­min­is­tra­tion in Wash­ing­ton is cru­cial.

“We know that build­ing a se­cure, sta­ble Afghanistan is our re­spon­si­bil­ity, but we are also fight­ing a war against transna­tional ter­ror, and we can’t do it alone,” said Nader Nadery, a se­nior Ghani aide. “It takes time for re­forms to show re­sults, and there is a huge wall of peo­ple against them. If there can be a clar­i­fi­ca­tion of U.S. sup­port, every­one will get the mes­sage, the se­cu­rity plan will suc­ceed, and even­tu­ally Afghanistan will be a suc­cess story for both coun­tries.”

JAMES MACKEN­ZIE/REUTERS

Gen. John W. Ni­chol­son Jr., the top U.S. mil­i­tary of­fi­cial in Afghanistan for the past 16 months and the best-known face of Wash­ing­ton there, ar­rives at a cer­e­mony in Hel­mand prov­ince in late April.

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