Obama restarts com­bat mis­sion in Afghanistan

Na­tion’s army un­able to fight Tal­iban alone

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY CARLO MUNOZ

More than a year since the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cially ended Amer­i­can com­bat op­er­a­tions in Afghanistan, the White House’s newly minted bat­tle plan for the coun­try ef­fec­tively restarts the com­bat mis­sion for the 9,800 U.S. ser­vice mem­bers still in the coun­try.

White House of­fi­cials have given the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s tacit ap­proval to al­low U.S. com­man­ders in Afghanistan to con­duct of­fen­sive airstrikes against the Tal­iban and other in­sur­gent groups and to let Amer­i­can troops restart joint ground op­er­a­tions with Afghan forces.

The changes were based on the find­ings of a three-month review of the sit­u­a­tion in Afghanistan, which was over­seen by Gen. John Ni­chol­son, the top U.S. com­man­der there, and sub­mit­ted to Pen­tagon and White House of­fi­cials this month.

Be­fore the changes made at Gen. Ni­chol­son’s be­hest, Amer­i­can air power was au­tho­rized only when U.S. forces were un­der di­rect threat and Amer­i­can com­bat mis­sions in the coun­try were limited to spe­cial op­er­a­tions teams.

The shift in the White House strat­egy was a clear recog­ni­tion that “what is on the ground right now just isn’t work­ing,” said Rick Nel­son, a se­nior coun­tert­er­ror­ism an­a­lyst at the Cen­ter for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies.

Pres­i­dent Obama pledged to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan when he an­nounced in 2007 that he was seek­ing the White House. That cam­paign prom­ise led to ac­cu­sa­tions that he was mak­ing war de­ci­sions based on do­mes­tic pol­i­tics with­out re­gard to the sit­u­a­tions on the ground.

Mr. Nel­son said the White House “has been re­ally bad about chang­ing mil­i­tary tac­tics” in Afghanistan, press­ing ahead with plans to with­draw all U.S. forces from the coun­try by 2017.

The lat­est move, how­ever, “re­flects [that Mr. Obama] is be­ing thought­ful” about what is needed in Afghanistan to en­sure the coun­try does not de­volve into a failed state, he said.

U.S. mil­i­tary com­man­ders are “still in the process of op­er­a­tional­iz­ing” the strat­egy, Pen­tagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told re­porters last Tues­day.

The changes, he said, would af­fect only the U.S. mil­i­tary mis­sion in Afghanistan, known as Op­er­a­tion Free­dom’s Sen­tinel, and not the NATO-led train­ing mis­sion un­der Op­er­a­tion Res­o­lute Sup­port.

The changes ap­proved by the White House did not con­sti­tute a re­turn to full-fledged com­bat by U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Capt. Davis said. Rather, the shift would al­low U.S. forces to pro­vide “strate­gic ef­fects … en­abling the [Afghan Na­tional Se­cu­rity Forces]” to take on the Tal­iban and other Is­lamist groups dur­ing the fight­ing sea­son, he said.

U.S. airstrikes, as well as Amer­i­can and Afghan com­bat mis­sions, would be limited to ar­eas of Afghanistan where lo­cal forces need the most help, Capt. Davis said.

The U.S. mis­sion will “not be some­thing where we will be do­ing this ev­ery­where,” he said.

But in the face of a resur­gent Tal­iban and a floun­der­ing Afghan mil­i­tary and po­lice force, U.S. troops may again find them­selves en­gaged in some of the most danger­ous ar­eas of Afghanistan, fight­ing in what has be­come the long­est war in U.S. his­tory.

The White House planned to re­duce U.S. troop num­bers from the cur­rent 9,800 to 5,500 by the end of this year, with the ul­ti­mate goal of a full troop with­drawal by the end of next year.

That plan, how­ever, re­lied heav­ily on Afghan forces’ abil­ity to hold ground against the Tal­iban with lit­tle to no Amer­i­can mil­i­tary sup­port. But since the of­fi­cial end of U.S. com­bat op­er­a­tions in the coun­try, the Tal­iban have stepped up their bat­tle tempo sig­nif­i­cantly.

Af­ter two fight­ing sea­sons on their own, Afghan forces have ceded nearly 80 of Afghanistan’s 400-plus dis­tricts to Tal­iban con­trol.

In an April threat as­sess­ment on Afghanistan, the In­sti­tute for the Study of War, a Wash­ing­ton think tank, warned that Afghan se­cu­rity forces are sim­ply “un­pre­pared to counter the Tal­iban mil­i­tants’ sum­mer cam­paign.”

While the new strat­egy will de­pend on U.S. forces to bol­ster their Afghan coun­ter­parts, Amer­i­can com­man­ders do not en­vi­sion send­ing ad­di­tional troops to sup­port that mis­sion, De­fense Sec­re­tary Ash­ton Carter said.

“We’re not ask­ing for that at this time,” Mr. Carter told re­porters while en route to a NATO min­is­te­rial meet­ing in Brus­sels.

“That isn’t part of what we’ve talked about with Gen. Ni­chol­son, and we think he can have the ef­fect that he wants to have with the U.S. forces there,” Mr. Carter said.

Ham­dul­lah Mo­hib, Afghanistan’s am­bas­sador to the U.S., de­fended his coun­try’s mil­i­tary, not­ing that its armed forces have made in­cred­i­ble strides amid a con­stantly evolv­ing en­emy.

“The Afghan mil­i­tary was 12 years old in 2015. … We’re now fight­ing an en­emy that is more bru­tal,” Mr. Mo­hib said dur­ing a speech at the Hud­son In­sti­tute in Wash­ing­ton.

“Once we only faced the Tal­iban. Now we are at­tacked by face­less ter­ror­ists whose agenda threat­ens not only Afghanistan, but re­gional and world se­cu­rity,” he said in ref­er­ence to Is­lamic State cells’ re­ported footholds along his coun­try’s eastern bor­der re­gions.

Aside from the Is­lamic State’s ef­forts in Afghanistan, Gen. Ni­chol­son said, re­newed al­liances be­tween the Tal­iban and resur­gent al Qaeda ter­ror­ist cells in Afghanistan, com­bined with the Afghan mil­i­tary’s rel­a­tive in­ef­fec­tive­ness against the mil­i­tants could force Mr. Obama to aban­don his troop with­drawal time­line.

The de­ci­sion to al­low U.S. forces to re-en­gage in the fight for Afghanistan could be a pre­cur­sor to that kind of de­ci­sion, Mr. Nel­son sug­gested.

U.S. and NATO com­man­ders “couldn’t know how good [Afghan forces] would be un­til we let them go out on their own,” he said.

Given the Afghan per­for­mance on the bat­tle­field, U.S. forces now must “re-en­gage and be more ag­gres­sive” in how they op­er­ate in the coun­try, Mr. Nel­son said, or “every­thing we have done for the last 15 years goes away. It evap­o­rates.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS PHO­TO­GRAPHS

Amer­i­can troops have been ap­proved to restart joint ground op­er­a­tions with Afghan forces at the be­hest of Gen. John Ni­chol­son, the top U.S. com­man­der on the ground.

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