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Author: Subject: Afghanistan, and all of its ramifications

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[*] posted on 25-7-2017 at 03:57 PM
Afghanistan, and all of its ramifications

Will Trump Privatize the Afghanistan War?

(Source: Project On Government Oversight; issued July 21, 2017)
By Neil Gordon

Is the Trump administration going to hand over US peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan to private mercenaries?

This is now the big question in national security policy circles. It follows last week’s New York Times report that Erik Prince, the founder of private security firm Blackwater, and Stephen Feinberg, the billionaire financier who owns defense contracting giant DynCorp International, have been lobbying the Pentagon to replace troops in Afghanistan with contractors.

Prince outlined his proposed solution in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed: a “MacArthur model,” with an “American viceroy” leading a force of “private military units.” Feinberg’s plan, according to the Times, calls for more collaboration with the Afghan government, but it would also use private fighters—possibly even DynCorp employees—and would put the CIA in command. Both men pitched their ideas directly to the Secretary of Defense at the behest of senior Trump advisers Stephen Bannon and Jared Kushner.

The news is deeply troubling. There is an obvious conflict of interest in letting contractors devise a military strategy that relies entirely on contractors. In addition, the two pitchmen who stand to profit from it symbolize the worst aspects of outsourcing. When Prince led Blackwater, the company earned international infamy with instances of excessive force and brutality in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a $42 million fine for arms export violations.

Prince, who now runs another private security company, is reportedly under investigation for money laundering and sketchy business dealings with foreign governments. DynCorp continues to receive billions of dollars in federal business every year despite a long track record of questionable behavior, including instances of human trafficking and contract fraud.

It’s also unclear how the Pentagon can square this strategy with a federal regulation that bars contractors from performing inherently governmental functions, or functions that directly impact the government’s discretionary authority, decision-making responsibility, or accountability. Among the tasks considered off-limits to contractors are the command of military forces, the conduct of foreign relations, the determination of agency policy, and the direction and control of intelligence and counter-intelligence operations.

The strategy could also come with a price tag that antagonizes deficit hawks. The Project On Government Oversight’s Bad Business report found that security services, performed both domestically and overseas, often cost the government more when performed by contractors. For example, we determined that Blackwater security guards in Iraq were between 11 and 78 percent more expensive than military guards.

So far, the ambitious proposals of Prince and Feinberg seem to be falling on deaf ears at the Pentagon, which is planning to send several thousand additional troops to a war that is about to enter its 17th year and has cost in the neighborhood of $1 trillion.

POGO believes that contractors should continue to play a role in the pacification and redevelopment of Afghanistan, but not a leading role. This is especially true in combat, peacekeeping, and intelligence operations, where a clear chain of command and a robust system of accountability are essential. Taxpayers should not foot the bill for a private army that could ultimately undermine US objectives and worsen the situation in Afghanistan.

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[*] posted on 9-8-2017 at 04:46 PM

Pentagon Moves More Marines to Afghanistan to Support Advisory Mission

U.S. Marines assigned to Regimental Combat Team 7, 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion, 1st Tank Battalion, and 3rd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, conduct actions in support of Operation Dynamic Partnership in Shurakay, Helmand province, Afghanistan, Feb. 10, 2013. (U.S. Marine Corps/Cpl. Alejandro Pena)

Posted By: Hope Hodge Seck August 8, 2017

A small number of additional Marines is headed to Helmand province, Afghanistan, temporarily in a move designed to “reinforce advisory activities,” military officials confirmed Tuesday.

The move was first reported by NBC News yesterday evening, which cited defense sources saying dozens of Marines — fewer than 100 — would be added to Task Force Southwest, a 300-man advisory unit that works with local Afghan National Army and defense forces.

The unit deployed in April, representing the first time Marines have been in the Taliban stronghold of Helmand province since they pulled out and ceded headquarters buildings and infrastructure to the Afghans in 2014.

Prior to the Marines’ arrival this year, a U.S. Army advisory element, Task Force Forge, had been deployed to Helmand.

A spokesman for U.S. Central Command, Army Maj. Josh Jacques, said the move is not related to any Defense Department change in policy or strategy in Afghanistan.

“The reallocation of Marine forces in support of the Resolute Support Mission is a routine, theater-coordinated activity,” he said. “These Marines are already in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility and will be in Afghanistan temporarily to give Resolute Support the ability to reinforce advisory activities.”

Most Marines in CentCom, which covers all of the Middle East, fall under Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response-Central Command, which has troops stationed at the Al Asad and Al Taqaddum air bases in Iraq and dispersed to other strategic positions in the region.

But in the recent past, Marines have also been dispatched from shipboard Marine Expeditionary Units deployed to the region to hot spots in the Middle East. Last year, troops from the 26th MEU were sent to Iraq to establish an artillery firebase and support the assault on the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul.

And earlier this year, an artillery element from the 11th MEU was dispatched to Syria to stand up a mobile fires position in support of the coalition fight to flush ISIS out of Raqqa.

The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, out of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, is currently deployed to the Middle East.
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[*] posted on 11-8-2017 at 11:37 AM

Frustrated with Trump, McCain Unveils Afghan War Strategy

FILE - In this July 27, 2017 file photo, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Associated Press | 10 Aug 2017 | by Richard Lardner

WASHINGTON — In a rebuke of President Donald Trump, Arizona Sen. John McCain declared Thursday that "America is adrift in Afghanistan" as he unveiled a war strategy of his own that includes more U.S. combat forces and greater counterterrorism efforts.

McCain, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the U.S. needs to put strict conditions on continued assistance to Afghanistan requiring Kabul to demonstrate "measurable progress" in curbing corruption, strengthening the rule of law, and improving the government's financial transparency.

"Nearly seven months into President Trump's administration, we've had no strategy at all as conditions on the ground have steadily worsened," said McCain, a leading voice in Congress on national security matters. "The thousands of Americans putting their lives on the line in Afghanistan deserve better from their commander in chief."

McCain said he'll seek a vote on his "strategy for success" in Afghanistan when the Senate returns in September and takes up the annual defense policy bill. His plan doesn't say how many more U.S. forces should be sent to Afghanistan.

Frustrated by his options, Trump has withheld approval of a long-delayed Afghanistan war strategy as he searches for a plan that will allow American forces to pull out once and for all.

The United States has about 8,400 troops in Afghanistan, and Trump has so far resisted the Pentagon's recommendations to send almost 4,000 more Americans to expand training of Afghan military forces and beef up U.S. counterterrorism operations against al-Qaida, a growing Islamic State affiliate and other extremist groups. But the troop deployment, which would augment an already existing U.S. force of at least 8,400 troops, has been held up amid broader strategy questions, including how to engage regional powers in an effort to stabilize the fractured nation.

These powers include U.S. friends and foes, from Pakistan and India to China, Russia and Iran. Pentagon plans aren't calling for a radical departure from the limited approach endorsed by former President Barack Obama, and several officials have credited Trump with rightly asking tough questions, such as how the prescribed approach might lead to success.

But McCain has grown increasingly impatient. During a committee hearing in June, he told Defense Secretary Jim Mattis that he had been confident the Trump administration would deliver a plan for Afghanistan within a month or two after taking office.

"So all I can tell you is that unless we get a strategy from you, you're going to get a strategy from us," McCain said at the time.

The amendment he plans to propose adding to the defense policy bill calls for a "long-term, open-ended" U.S.-Afghanistan partnership that includes an "enduring U.S. counterterrorism presence."

He also recommends expanding U.S. training assistance to the Afghan security forces so they can capably fight the Taliban and other militant groups. And McCain proposes longer-term support that will allow the Afghans to develop and expand their own intelligence, logistics, special forces and air lift operations.

McCain's approach envisions better harnessing U.S. military and civil strengths in order to "deny, disrupt, degrade and destroy" the ability of terrorist groups to use Afghanistan as a sanctuary and then seek a "negotiated peace process" that leads to Afghan political reconciliation.

He also wants to punish neighboring Pakistan with graduated diplomatic, military and economic costs "as long as it continues to provide support and sanctuary to terrorist and insurgent groups, including the Taliban and the Haqqani Network."
This article was written by Richard Lardner from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to
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[*] posted on 16-8-2017 at 06:55 PM

Mattis Mulls Plan to Privatize War in Afghanistan

Marines with 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment establish a patrol base in an abandoned compound in Afghanistan on April 10, 2017. (screen grab from U.S. Defense Department video)

Posted By: Brendan McGarry August 15, 2017

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said administration officials are mulling the proposal by businessman and former Navy SEAL Erik Prince to surge private security contractors into Afghanistan to take over duties currently performed by U.S. troops.

“The strategic decisions have not been made, but — I don’t know how to put this — I think that’s all I want to say,” Mattis told reporters Monday at the Pentagon. “The strategic decision has not been made.”

The defense secretary added, “It’s part of the options being considered. And the president’s open to the advice of the secretary of state, and myself and the director of the CIA,” referring to Rex Tillerson at State and Mike Pompeo at the Central Intelligence Agency.

Prince, who founded the private security firm Blackwater that was later renamed to Xe Services and then Academi, first shared his idea for Afghanistan in a May 31 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, “The MacArthur Model for Afghanistan,” which called for consolidating authority into a viceroy who would lead coalition efforts in the country.

This month, he released more details about the plan to the news media.

The proposal calls for deploying 5,500 private contractors, mostly former commandos, to advise Afghan forces, along with a 90-aircraft private air force to provide close air support, according to an Aug. 8 article by USA Today’s Jim Michaels.
The U.S. military currently has more than 8,000 service members in Afghanistan and more than 23,500 contractors, including nearly 1,700 armed contractors, according to a July report from U.S. Central Command.

Mattis had pledged to deliver a new strategy for Afghanistan by mid-July that would rely on increased air power and would also address the long-standing request of Army Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan and the NATO Resolute Support Mission, for an additional 3,000 to 5,000 troops.

However, the Mattis plan has been held up as the White House reviews the entire Afghanistan mission amid reports that top advisers to Trump have been recommending a scaled-down U.S. operation — one that could possibly include Prince’s contractor proposal.

On Monday, Mattis said “we are close” to a decision on a new strategy for Afghanistan and said “if there were an increase [in security contractors], we’d tell you there’s going to be an increase. We might not tell you which specific number’s going where. But no, I mean we’d be — we’d be open about — transparent about that.”

He added, “The only things that we’re going to conceal are things that would directly help the enemy. But otherwise, we’re proud of what we do and we’ll tell you.”

— Richard Sisk contributed to this report.
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[*] posted on 19-8-2017 at 01:11 PM

It’s Time To Make Afghanistan Someone Else’s Problem

By Barry Posen
The Atlantic

10:05 AM ET

Photo by Army Sgt. Ben Watson

A full withdrawal of U.S. forces will force Iran, Russia, and others, to step up.

The Trump administration, as well as its critics, are reportedly wrestling with the question of a new strategy for the war in Afghanistan, where the government has shown no signs of being able to turn the tide in the 16-year war against the Taliban. General John Nicholson, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan,with support from Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, has asked for more troops, apparently in service of a strategy that, for the moment, seeks simply to “not lose.” President Trump has granted this request in principle, but these reinforcements have not yet been dispatched, because the president’s advisors seem to believe that he is not committed to stay the course. Instead, a strategic review is underway. Meanwhile, Senator John McCain has offered his own strategy for Afghanistan, which appears to be the “old” strategy, with the admixture of a commitment to stay forever and provide the commanders with a blank check for forces and money to do so.

But these approaches, which will reportedly be discussed at a meeting at Camp David on Friday, misunderstand the dilemma. For America, the perhaps-counterintuitive answer in Afghanistan may be that only by reducing its presence, or withdrawing completely, can it advance the full range of its strategic interests.

When the United States overthrew the Taliban regime in 2001, it was the most capable state in the world—sufficiently powerful to deter the ambitious and reassure the fearful. These days, geo-political rivalry is back, as new powers have risen and old ones have recovered some of their vigor. Without prejudging whatever new grand strategy the Trump administration has in mind for this new landscape, the United States is clearly in competition—sometimes globally and sometimes only regionally—with Russia, China, and Iran. In most of the world, America’s policies for the last 20 years have driven these competitors toward each other or solved security problems for them that they would otherwise be forced to solve for themselves.

For the United States, the value of skilled statecraft lies in the ability to tie competing nation-states up in knots by engaging their national-security interests in ways that benefit America.

When America intervenes to manage a civil war, other powers can throw darts at the Americans from the sidelines; when it is absent, those on the sidelines have to solve the problem for themselves, and will often disagree about the solution.

Afghanistan is a good place to create problems for America’s adversaries. And the best way to do that is to get out. 

From a strategic perspective, then, a dramatic reduction of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan—or even a complete drawdown—would likely realign regional behavior in ways that would drive current U.S. adversaries apart, force them to deal with difficult local problems, and encourage other regional powers to seek better ties with Washington. From an American perspective, it is a win-win.

A U.S. drawdown would almost certainly reorient Iran’s approach to its neighbor to the east. Many Americans don’t know that the fundamentalist Sunni-Taliban government of Afghanistan and the orthodox Shia government of Iran came to the brink of war in 1998. The Taliban repressed Afghan Shiites, many of whom live in the western part of the country, near the Iranian border. At the same time, Iran provided arms and financial assistance to the “northern alliance” of Afghan Tajiks and Uzbeks, who never surrendered to the Taliban government. The Taliban, in turn, received strong backing from Pakistan. Within Pakistan, sectarian attacks on Shia were and remain quite common.

All of these factional tensions persist to this day. As many have observed, a Sunni-Shia civil war remains interwoven with conflicts across the greater Middle East. Were the United States to significantly reduce its support to the current government of Afghanistan, Iran would likely find it in its own interest to cease its reported flirtations with the Taliban and lend support to the Afghan government, or to broker a settlement between the two.

Iran is interested in building a new “silk road” trading route that runs from Central Asia to the Persian Gulf, which could best flourish in a peaceful Afghanistan. Moreover, Iran would probably find it reasonable to station more military forces on its eastern border to deter Taliban misbehavior. Overall, an increase in Taliban influence is ultimately a threat to Iran’s security, and would place a new constraint on Iran’s adventurism elsewhere in the region, where it typically seeks gains at the expense of U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, who inevitably come to Washington demanding assistance to shore up their positions.

If the United States left Afghanistan, Russia, effectively an ally of Iran in the Syrian civil war, would also find it reasonable to assist the Afghan government in its fight against the Taliban.

Russia intervened in Syria for many reasons, but fear of a jihadi victory there was central. A Taliban victory in Afghanistan would be as problematic for Russian security because Islamist groups from the Caucasus—hostile to the Russian government—could then find sanctuary there, as they have in the past. Like Iran, Russia once aided the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. Thus, it would also be in Russia’s interest to support the Afghan government and oppose the Taliban. While the United States insists that Russia is providing aid to the Taliban—perhaps an instance of Vladimir Putin succumbing to the temptation to discomfit America—when the Taliban is pointed at Russian forces, they will be forced to change their behavior.
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[*] posted on 19-8-2017 at 01:16 PM

America Needs to Stay in Afghanistan

By Vance Serchuk
Vance Serchuk is an adjunct senior fellow at CNAS., The Atlantic

1:14 PM ET

U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Ben Watson

'U.S. Afghan policy for 15 years has not been nation-building, but exit-seeking.'

Nearly 16 years after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the United States is nearing a seminal moment in its involvement in Afghanistan, as President Donald Trump gathers at Camp David today with his national-security team to determine what to do about the deteriorating stalemate he inherited in South Asia.

The Trump administration is reportedly weighing several competing proposals for Afghanistan. While military commanders have recommended an increase of several thousand U.S. troops to enable increased support for the Afghan military and counterterrorism operations, the White House is also considering alternative approaches that could entail the reduction or even the complete exit of American conventional forces—relying instead on special operations forces, paramilitaries, and contractors.

To an unusual degree, the debate over the future of the Afghan war is really about its past: specifically, why a decade and a half of military operations has failed to turn the tide. It is a fair question, and President Trump has been correct to press for answers before deciding on a way ahead.

Some argue the problem has been America’s unrealistic ambitions in Afghanistan—undertaking a costly nation-building campaign in the hopes of transforming a broken country—and that the best course, therefore, is to scale back military involvement and minimize further entanglement in this graveyard of empires.  

The problem with this argument is that it inverts the history of what has actually happened in Afghanistan since 2001. In fact, the consistent theme of U.S. Afghan policy for 15 years has not been nation-building, but exit-seeking. From nearly the moment the first U.S. forces arrived in the wake of 9/11, Washington has been trying to hand off responsibility for the country and draw down its military presence. In doing so, it has inadvertently thrown a lifeline to the enemies it went to Afghanistan to defeat, encouraged regional powers to hedge against it, and needlessly compounded the difficulty of this mission. The key question now is whether Trump recognizes this mistake, or repeats it.  

The story of U.S. disengagement from Afghanistan begins in late 2001 with the Bush administration, which fiercely resisted any kind of large-scale military commitment to stabilize the country after the Taliban regime retreated from Kabul and Kandahar. In addition to its interest in keeping forces in reserve for its anticipated showdown with Iraq, the Bush administration’s embrace of a “modest footprint” for Afghanistan, as then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called it, was rationalized as a repudiation of the Clinton administration’s peacekeeping interventions in the Balkans during the 1990s. A large U.S. presence in Afghanistan, it was argued, would spur Afghan xenophobia and foster unnatural “dependency” on foreigners, while its absence would encourage a quicker transition to Afghan self-sufficiency.

What Washington has never attempted in Afghanistan is an explicit commitment to a sustainable, sustained U.S. military presence in the country.

In fact, as a consequence of this initial “hands off” approach in Afghanistan, the country soon found itself in a kind of political and security free fall. To his credit, President Bush changed course in 2003, initiating a U.S.-led counterinsurgency campaign that closely integrated military and political lines of effort, and began to yield hopeful results. But with Iraq itself melting down by 2005 and the White House eager to show it was bringing troops home from somewhere, the White House dropped this brief experiment in favor of transitioning ownership of Afghanistan to NATO. In doing so, the Bush administration argued the Taliban was a spent force, that NATO allies were up to the task of shouldering responsibility for vital terrain like southern Afghanistan, and the United States therefore could look to reduce its own military presence.

All three assumptions were disastrously wrong. NATO lacked the command structure, authorities, and capabilities, to wage the nationwide counterinsurgency campaign required to keep pressure on the Taliban, which quickly came roaring back. In his eagerness to extricate his administration from Afghanistan, Bush paved the way for an even bigger quagmire.  

The Obama administration entered office pledging to reverse Bush’s failures in Afghanistan, only to replicate the most fundamental of them in arguably even more spectacular fashion.

While Obama reluctantly backed a surge of U.S. forces at the urging of his commanders, he coupled this with a fixed date for their withdrawal. In an ironic echo of Rumsfeld, Obama justified this move by arguing that it would incentivize the Afghans to take responsibility for their country. Instead, it discouraged a wary populace from siding with a U.S. military presence designed to be fleeting, while signaling to the Taliban (and its Pakistani backers) that time was on their side.

Obama then redoubled this unforced error by announcing an even more draconian drawdown of U.S. troops in 2014, not on the basis of on-the-ground military conditions, but with the political timetable of getting all troops out by the end of his own tenure. The predictable result was that security conditions deteriorated, eventually forcing the White House to stop short of the complete withdrawal it had promised, but only after U.S. forces had been severely pared back, the Taliban had reclaimed momentum, and regional powers had stepped up their support for insurgents in anticipation of a post-American Afghanistan.

Repeating the mistakes of the past by trying to withdraw troops from the country is a surefire recipe for more failure.

What Washington has never attempted in Afghanistan, over the course of more than 15 years there, is the one policy that has been necessary from the outset: an explicit commitment to a sustainable, sustained U.S. military presence in the country.

Making such a commitment would send the unequivocal message to the Taliban that it cannot hope to prevail on the battlefield and must therefore pursue political reconciliation seriously. It would also position America for the tough diplomacy to convince Afghanistan’s neighbors, foremost Pakistan, to stop backing insurgent groups in preparation for an American exit.

The strategic paradox of Afghanistan is that the more the United States has sought to leave, the more it has fostered the conditions that have forced it to stay. By contrast, the sooner Washington can convince all parties to the conflict of its long-term intent to remain, the sooner it can set the conditions to drive the conflict towards an end game.

To be clear, a sustained U.S. military presence in Afghanistan alone is no guarantee of success. But repeating the mistakes of the past by trying to withdraw troops from the country is a surefire recipe for more failure.

Can Americans stomach an open-ended military commitment to Afghanistan? Didn’t they, after all, elect Trump—and for that matter, Obama—in part because they promised to diminish America’s overseas burdens? Won’t they demand a date by which all of U.S. forces come home?

This is, in some respects, a strange argument. More than 60 years after the end of the Korean War, tens of thousands of American troops are still deployed there—in the shadow of Kim Jong Un’s arsenal—without any hint of domestic controversy, because Americans long ago accepted that this was in the national interest. So too with the enduring U.S. military presence in Europe and Japan after World War II, and across the Middle East since the early 1990s.

In truth, the foremost responsibility of any president is to keep Americans safe. Preventing Afghanistan from once again becoming a terrorist sanctuary from which attacks on America can be launched is as clear-cut a vital national interest as any in the world. If the price for this is a sustained military presence there—and the alternative, withdrawal, is more likely to result in a terrorist victory along the lines of what happened in Iraq after America left—that is not seemingly a prohibitively difficult case to make to the American people. On the contrary, it is telling that, almost 16 years after 9/11, there is no great groundswell of public protest or opposition to America’s current operations in Afghanistan. In a perfect world, of course, U.S. forces wouldn’t be required to stay in Afghanistan—or anywhere else for that matter—but as Americans long ago internalized, that is not the world they live in.

To his admirers and detractors alike, Donald Trump has promised to be a revolutionary force in U.S. foreign policy, prepared to overturn longstanding practices if they do not advance America’s interests, and to deliver tough truths to the American people. That is precisely the opportunity, and the imperative, that now exists in Afghanistan. Rather than following the example of his predecessors in searching for an exit from the outset of his presidency, he can learn from their experience and commit to stay. In addition to being the only plausible path to a decent outcome in Afghanistan, it also has the virtue of never before having been tried.

Vance Serchuk is an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Since August 2013, he has been executive director of the KKR Global Institute, based in New York.
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[*] posted on 19-8-2017 at 05:30 PM

To an unusual degree, the debate over the future of the Afghan war is really about its past: specifically, why a decade and a half of military operations has failed to turn the tide.

Talk about mission creep! The enemy was Al Qaeda, not the Taliban.

Once the Taliban got the message that it would not be a wise move to allow Afghan territory to be used by third parties as a safe haven, the US should have gone for a peace settlement, even if it meant partitioning the country, which is already ethnically divided anyway, then left them to their own dysfunctional devices, so long as they keep themselves to themselves.


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[*] posted on 21-8-2017 at 02:38 PM

President Trump to present new Afghanistan, Asia strategy Monday night

By: Tony Lombardo and Jeff Schogol   8 hours ago

President Donald Trump. (Carlos Osorio/AP)

President Donald Trump in a national address will update the “path forward for America‘s engagement in Afghanistan and South Asia,” according to a White House statement issued Sunday. 

The address will take place 9 p.m. Eastern at Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia. More information was not immediately available.  

The president’s speech comes at the end of a review of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan that has lasted several months and looked at options ranging from adding several thousand more U.S. troops to total withdrawal.

One option pushed by Erik Prince, the former CEO of the private military company known as Blackwater, involved having thousands of private security contractors to fight alongside Afghan troops and police in battle and using aircraft provided by his company Lancaster6 to fly intelligence and close-air support missions.

However, the contractor plan floated by the former Blackwater CEO appears dead in the water, according to a U.S. and Afghan defense official. That plan was rejected by the Afghan government, and was opposed by Secretary Mattis heading into Friday’s high-level meeting at Camp David. The two officials spoke to Military Times on condition of anonymity. 

On Aug. 14, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said that President Trump was still considering both withdrawing all U.S. forces from Afghanistan and relying on contractors to fight with Afghans. Mattis declined to say on Sunday which option Trump has selected.

“He really did come in with very different courses of action,” Mattis told reporters while traveling to the Middle East. “I think he now needs the weekend to collect his thoughts about how he’s going to explain it to the American people.”

One reason the decision-making process has taken so long is that President Trump often asked his advisers to refine the options presented to him, Mattis said. The president sought advice from a variety of officials, including the attorney general’s office, Homeland Security Department, State Department and Office of Management and Budget.

“The process was rigorous and it involved all members of the cabinet – of the national security staff, I would say, writ large,” Mattis said. “I’m very comfortable that the strategic process was sufficiently rigorous and did not go in with a preset condition in terms of what questions could be asked or what decisions would be made.”

The new strategy will involve the whole region, including Pakistan, Defense Secretary James Mattis said, adding: “It is a South Asia strategy. It is not just an Afghanistan strategy.”

Military Times’ reporter Shawn Snow contributed to this report.
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[*] posted on 21-8-2017 at 02:59 PM

US military leaders await Trump decision on Afghan mission

By: Lolita C. Baldor and Robert Burns, The Associated Press   13 hours ago

Defense Secretary James Mattis attends a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017, at the State Department in Washington. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

CAMP MOREHEAD, Afghanistan — Signaling that the U.S. military expects its mission to continue, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan on Sunday hailed the launch of the Afghan Army’s new special operations corps, declaring that “we are with you and we will stay with you.”

Gen. John Nicholson’s exhortation of continued support for the Afghans suggested the Pentagon may have won its argument that America’s military must stay engaged in the conflict in order to insure terrorists don’t once again threaten the U.S. from safe havens in Afghanistan.

President Donald Trump’s defense secretary hinted Sunday that a new overall strategy for the war might be unveiled soon.

Nicholson said the commandos, and a plan to double the size of the Afghan’s special operations forces, are critical to winning the war.

“I assure you we are with you in this fight. We are with you and we will stay with you,” he said during a ceremony at Camp Morehead, a training base for Afghan commandos southeast of Kabul.

The Pentagon was awaiting a final announcement by Trump on a proposal to send nearly 4,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. The added forces would increase training and advising of the Afghan forces and bolster counterterrorism operations against the Taliban and an Islamic State group affiliate trying to gain a foothold in the country.

The administration has been at odds for months over how to craft a new strategy for the war in Afghanistan amid frustrations that 16 years after 9/11 the conflict is stalemated.

The Afghan government only controls half of the country and is beset by endemic corruption and infighting. The Islamic State group has been hit hard but continues to attempt major attacks, insurgents still find safe harbor in Pakistan, and Russia, Iran and others are increasingly trying to shape the outcome. At this point, everything the U.S. military has proposed points to keeping the Afghan government in place and struggling to turn a dismal quagmire around.

He said the deliberations, including talks at the Camp David presidential retreat on Friday, were done properly.

“I am very comfortable that the strategic process was sufficiently rigorous,” Mattis said, speaking aboard a military aircraft on an overnight flight from Washington to Amman, Jordan.

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and U.S. Army Gen. John Nicholson, commander of Resolute Support, host a joint press conference on April 24, 2017, at the Resolute Support Headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Air Force Tech. Sgt. Brigitte N. Brantley/DoD)

Months ago, Trump gave Mattis authority to set U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, but Mattis said he has not yet sent significant additional forces to the fight. He has said he would wait for Trump to set the strategic direction first.

Trump wrote on Twitter on Saturday that he had made decisions at Camp David, “including on Afghanistan,” but he did not say more about it. The expectation had been that he would agree to a modest boost in the U.S. war effort, while also addressing broader political, economic and regional issues.

Mattis said Trump had been presented with multiple options. He did not name them, but others have said one option was to pull out of Afghanistan entirely. Another, which Mattis had mentioned recently in Washington, was to hire private contractors to perform some of the U.S. military’s duties.

At Camp Morehead, lines of Afghan commandos stood at attention as Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani and a host of proud dignitaries sat under flag-draped canopies and welcomed the advancement in their nation’s long-struggling military.

In short remarks to the force, Nicholson said a defeat in Afghanistan would erode safety in the U.S. and “embolden jihadists around the world.”

That’s why, he said, the U.S. is helping to double the size of the Afghan commando force, adding that the ceremony “marks the beginning of the end of the Taliban.”

Maj. Gen. James Linder, the head of U.S. and NATO special operations forces in Afghanistan, said the nearly 4,000 troops requested by the Pentagon for Afghanistan includes about 460 trainers for his staff to help increase the size of the special operations forces.

He said he’d be able expand training locations and insure they have advisers at all the right levels, including on the new Afghan special operations corps staff.

According to a senior U.S. military officer in Kabul, increasing the number of American troops would allow the military to quickly send additional advisers or airstrike support to two simultaneous operations. Right now, the official said, they can only do so for one.

The officer said it would allow the U.S. to send fighter aircraft, refueling aircraft and surveillance aircraft to multiple locations for missions.

The officer was not authorized to discuss the details publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity.

Afghan military commanders have been clear that they want and expect continued U.S. military help.

Pulling out American forces “would be a total failure,” Col. Abdul Mahfuz, the Afghan intelligence agency chief for Qarahbagh, north of Kabul, said Saturday. And he said that substituting paid contractors for U.S. troops would be a formula for continuing the war, rather than completing it.

Mahfuz and other Afghan commanders spoke at a shura council meeting at Bagram air base attended also by U.S. military officers and Afghan intelligence officials.

Col. Abdul Mobin, who commands an Afghan mechanized battalion in the 111th Division, said any reduction in the U.S. military presence “leads to total failure.”

Speaking through an interpreter, he added that operations by Afghan and U.S. special operations forces have been very effective, and that “the presence of U.S. military personnel is felt and considered a positive step for peace.”

He said he’d like to see an additional 10,000 American troops in the country.

Burns reported from Amman, Jordan.
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[*] posted on 22-8-2017 at 11:59 AM

Trump Approves Sending 4K More Troops to Afghanistan, Official Says

U.S. Air Force Capt. Matthew Zahler and Maj. Jason Helton, air mobility liaison officers, uses a translator to talk to Afghanistan border police. (U.S. Air Force/Master Sgt. Jeffrey Allen)

Fox News | 22 Aug 2017

President Trump has signed off on sending an additional 4,000 troops to Afghanistan, ahead of his address to the nation Monday night, Fox News has learned.

Trump is set to unveil his strategy for Afghanistan, becoming the third commander-in-chief to attempt to stabilize the war-torn country and forge a victory in what is now America’s longest war. An estimated 8,400 U.S. troops are currently in Afghanistan.

The speech is scheduled for 9 p.m. EDT Monday. The president will deliver the nationally televised address to troops stationed at the Army's Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, located next to Arlington National Cemetery.

A big part of tonigh't speech will include "asking the region to do more," specifically asking India and Pakistan to do more to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, a senior U.S. official told Fox News.

Trump tweeted Saturday that he had reached a decision on the way forward, after meeting to review options with top advisers at Camp David. While the president has not revealed the contours of his plan, associates expect he will keep U.S. troops in the country and possibly approve sending thousands more.
"I think he is going to give [his generals] a chance to prove what they want and their strategy," former Trump deputy campaign manager David Bossie told "Fox & Friends," noting that Trump can adjust the plan in the future. 

The stakes are high. Some 16 years after the 9/11 terror attacks, which first drew U.S. forces into Afghanistan, the local government controls just half the country – beset by the Taliban insurgency and terrorist factions. An Islamic State affiliate has been hit hard but continues to attempt major attacks.

Politically speaking, Trump also is trying to hit reset after perhaps the rockiest stretch of his presidency, one that saw multiple staff shakeups and an all-consuming controversy last week over his response to the violence in Charlottesville. The president took heat for repeatedly blaming "both sides" for the clashes at a white supremacist rally, where a counter-protester was killed in a car attack. The response was met with a bipartisan rebuke from members of Congress and a wave of resignations from various corporate and other advisory boards.

Refocusing on national security, Trump is now faced with one of the most complex and difficult military challenges.

In Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson's comments suggested the Pentagon may have won its argument that the U.S. military must remain engaged in order to ensure that terrorists aren't again able to threaten the U.S. from havens inside Afghanistan.

"I assure you we are with you in this fight. We are with you and we will stay with you," Nicholson said during a ceremony at Camp Morehead, a training base for Afghan commandoes southeast of Kabul.

The added forces would increase training and advising of the Afghan forces and bolster counterterrorism operations against the Taliban and the Islamic State affiliate trying to gain a foothold in the country.

The administration had been at odds for months over how to craft a new Afghan war strategy.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who visited Afghanistan over the weekend, declared himself satisfied with how the administration had formulated its new strategy. But he refused to discuss details before Trump's announcement.

Fox News' Jennifer Griffin, Lucas Tomlinson and the Associated Press contributed to this report. 
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[*] posted on 22-8-2017 at 12:07 PM

Trump Afghanistan strategy calls for more troops, regional pressure

By: Aaron Mehta and Tara Copp   22 minutes ago

President Donald Trump speaks at Fort Myer in Arlington Va., Monday, Aug. 21, 2017, during an address to the nation about a strategy he believes will best position the U.S. to eventually declare victory in Afghanistan. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump announced a new plan for Afghanistan Monday night with calls for additional U.S. forces, greater NATO participation and regional pressure that held echoes of the previous administrations even as the president said his way forward would be a much more aggressive plan that delivers results.

“Nearly 16 years after Sept. 11 attacks, the American people are weary of war without victory,” Trump told a largely military audience at Fort Myer in Virginia. 

Trump said he was initially inclined to withdraw all forces. As he said on the campaign trail, he still feels that the U.S. had spent too much time, energy and money trying to rebuild Afghanistan, like Iraq, to resemble American governance.

After repeat consultation with his military advisers, however, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Joseph Dunford, he relented and determined that a withdrawal from Afghanistan would be a grave mistake. 

“Our nation must seek an honorable and enduring outcome,” worthy of the 2,300 U.S. lives lost there fighting in the last 16 years, he said. 

Trump said there are key differences between his plan and those of the last sixteen years. First, there would be no time-based strategies but a condition-based approach to determine when U.S. forces would withdraw.

“We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military action,” Trump said. “I will not say when we are going to attack. But attack we will.” 

Second, the president said the U.S. would not be committing its military resources to reconstruction or rebullding Afghanistan’s governance.“We are not nation building again. we are killing terrorists,” Trump said. 

The revised strategy, like the previous one, pursues a regional approach by calling for Pakistan to shore up its border with Afghanistan and confront terror groups such as the Islamic State and Haqqani network.

President Barack Obama also called for regional engagement but that ultimately failed because of the arbitrary withdrawal deadlines Obama had set, said Steven Bucci, a visiting national security fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

“Doing it the other way [announcing a date of withdrawal] was silly,” Bucci said. ”It plays well to a domestic audience but doesn’t do well on the battlefield to say how many people are going to show up and how long they are going to be there.” 

Bucci said continuing engagement with Pakistan now “has more opportunity for success because in that part of the world when you show strength and resolve other people tend to get in line with you. If you waver, they scatter.”  

Trump’s revised strategy also relies on NATO partners to continue to provide forces for Afghanistan operations, even though NATO has not met the troop requirements of the current plan.

Of the 15,000 forces Resolute Support currently requires to execute the train-and-equip mission, NATO has filled 13,600 slots, as of the latest figures available in May 2017. The U.S. provides the lion’s share of those forces, 6,900. 

Increasing the number of troops in Afghanistan was supported for several months by a group headlined by Mattis and National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster. Opposing the move was a group of Trump staffers led by the recently departed Steve Bannon, who had supported a bid by Frontier Services Group chairman Erik Prince to replace U.S. forces with an army of contractors.

There are already 23,525 contractors in Afghanistan supporting U.S. forces in Afghanistan — about 9,500 of those contractors are American and the rest are foreign nationals, according to a July 2017 quarterly report released by U.S. Central Command.

The Defense Department reports there are 8,400 U.S. troops serving in Afghanistan, but that figure does not take into account forces there on a temporary-duty assignment of 120 days or less. 

The Congressional Research Service has estimated the total cost of military options in Afghanistan since 2001 is more than $840 billion. 

For months, Mattis has said the White House was very close to selecting one of the options the Pentagon had developed but as late as last week the defense secretary said a full range of possibilities — from withdrawal, to the use of contracted forces, to adding about 4,000 additional troops — was on the table. 

“The process was rigorous and it involved all members of the cabinet – of the national security staff, I would say, writ large,” Mattis said Sunday. “I’m very comfortable that the strategic process was sufficiently rigorous and did not go in with a preset condition in terms of what questions could be asked or what decisions would be made.”

In June, Mattis declared that the Afghanistan review would not focus just on that country, but instead be part of a ”regional” approach, in a phrasing that seemed to encompass how the U.S. would handle Pakistan. 

Critics of Pakistan say the government in Islamabad has not done enough to stop militants, particularly from the Haqqani network, from flowing into Afghanistan.

The Trump administration has already made some changes in how it deals with Afghanistan’s neighbor, having cut military aid in its planned fiscal 2018 budget. It could take further steps, including listing the country as a state sponsor of terrorism or pushing NATO to remove Pakistan’s listing as a partner nation.

Shawn Brimley, a top National Security Council staffer and special adviser to the undersecretary of defense for policy during the first Obama administration, remains skeptical that a surge of several thousand troops will really make much of a difference in Afghanistan. 

“Unless President Trump articulates significant changes to the current strategy in Afghanistan and the ways we employ troops, it’s hard to see how adding about a brigade’s worth of additional forces will make a meaningful difference on the ground,” said Brimley, now executive vice president with the Center for a New American Strategy think tank.

“Unfortunately, there is little that is ultimately in America’s power to achieve in Afghanistan. The Taliban have achieved momentum and control many areas of Afghanistan. The Afghanistan government remains corrupt and rife with internecine strife. And Afghanistan’s neighbors have very different national interests than the United States and the international coalition,” Brimley continued. 

“The best that we can likely achieve is a well-coordinated counterterrorism approach that prevents Afghanistan’s use as a sanctuary for international terrorism,” he added. “That can likely be achieved with the kind of forces deployed today.”

Mineral wealth

Trump himself has, for years, publicly questioned why the U.S. should remain in Afghanistan.

In a series of November 2013 tweets, he proclaimed ”We have wasted an enormous amount of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. Their government has zero appreciation. Let's get out!” and ”Do not allow our very stupid leaders to sign a deal that keeps us in Afghanistan through 2024-with all costs by U.S.A.  MAKE AMERICA GREAT!”

And in March 2013, he tweeted ”We should leave Afghanistan immediately. No more wasted lives. If we have to go back in, we go in hard & quick. Rebuild the US first.”

So what changed Trump’s mind? One particular issue that has come to light is the question of mineral resources in Afghanistan and how those could benefit U.S. jobs.

Foreign Policy magazine recently reported that Trump met in July with Michael Silver, the CEO of American Elements, a company specializing in advanced metals. According to FP and the New York Times, Silver’s push on Afghanistan’s natural wealth of iron, copper and rare-earth metals intrigued the president, who would like to find ways to offset the cost of U.S. forces used abroad.  

However, getting those resources would likely prove a legal and logistical challenge, said Rebecca Zimmerman, a Policy Researcher at the RAND Corporation who has studied Afghanistan’s industrial growth.

Legally, the Afghan government has largely asked for royalties in the past from groups seeking to mine their resources, rather than in-kind benefits such as training of workers, Zimmerman said. So that would naturally eat into any profits the U.S. would gain from mining there, and could disincentivize American companies from putting forth the capitol needed to do that work. 

Logistically, Zimmerman notes, such resources have historically been very difficult to get out of the ground. 

”Beyond the active conflict happening around the sites and on the road, there is corruption and illegal mining,” she noted, adding that illegal mining is a major industry in Afghanistan.
“So exploiting that mineral wealth will be far harder than it looks,” Zimmerman continued. ”Plus, as more mines were opened, unless better transparency measures were in place, the rate of corruption and illicit activity would increase, contributing significantly to the conflict and the country's governance failures.”
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[*] posted on 23-8-2017 at 12:06 PM

Afghanistan: It’s Trump’s War Now

By James Kitfield

on August 22, 2017 at 1:46 PM

Trump speaks on Afghanistan at Fort Myers

When he stepped before the cameras last night to deliver his first prime time address to the nation, Donald Trump became the third president to reluctantly take ownership of the war in Afghanistan. After campaigning on ending costly entanglements for a war-weary country, the president admitted he was hemmed in by some hard realities.

“A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists, including ISIS and al Qaeda, would instantly fill, just as happened before 9/11,” Trump said. “Today, 20 U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan — the highest concentration in any region anywhere in the world.” 

Though Trump declined to provide specific numbers, the new Afghan strategy he unveiled last night includes roughly 4,000 additional U.S. reinforcements to the 8,400 presently deployed.

U.S. officials say the new strategy will involve: helping improve the Afghan government’s ability to support and regenerate Afghan Security Forces who suffered 6,700 casualties just in the past year; relaxing the rules of engagement for U.S. airpower; rejecting deadlines for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, instead using “conditions on the ground” as the primary metric of success; persuading NATO allies to increase their own troop levels in Afghanistan; and putting significant new pressure on Islamabad to target the Taliban and allied extremist groups operating in Pakistan.

“We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond,” Trump said. “Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan.  It has much to lose by continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists.”

Trump becomes the third U.S. president to try and pressure Pakistan to take a harder line on the Afghan Taliban and allied extremist groups operating on its territory, some of which its intelligence services support as proxies. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has already withheld $50 million in funding from Pakistan because he can’t certify that Islamabad “has taken sufficient action against the Haqqani Network,” a particularly lethal branch of the Afghan Taliban. To help prod Pakistan to action, Trump touted America’s close relations with India, saying America would “further develop its strategic partnership with India,” saying “we want them to help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development.”

Map by Center for Army Lessons Learned

Few national security experts are optimistic the Trump Administration can fundamentally change Pakistan’s tolerance for extremist groups. Given the weakness of the government in Islamabad, which maintains a nuclear weapons arsenal in a country rife with jihadist groups, there is only so much pressure U.S. administrations have felt comfortable applying. And without a fundamental change in Pakistan’s strategic calculations, the “victory” Trump promised the nation last night will prove elusive, experts say.

Ambassador James Dobbins was the Obama administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan 2013-14, and is co-author of Rolling Back the Islamic State. “As long as the Taliban enjoys a sanctuary in Pakistan where it can freely operate, I don’t think winning is a viable option in Afghanistan. However I do think we can achieve a stalemate with these additional troops that, if it persists long enough, may lead to a negotiated settlement of the conflict,” said Dobbins, currently a distinguished chair in diplomacy and security at the RAND Corporation. For all its Third World limitations and corruption, he also believes the Afghan government deserves additional U.S. support at a critical moment. ‘

“By the standards of the region, I believe the government in Kabul is an extremely reliable partner, much more so than Iraq, Syria, Yemen or many other places where U.S. forces are involved in counterterrorism operations. It has a freer press, more democratic elections, and is more pro-American than any of its neighbors such as Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, or Turkmenistan. A U.S. presence and security partnership is actually a vote-getter in Afghan elections. There’s not another Islamic country in the world where that is true.”

For a president whose distaste for “nation building” and foreign entanglements is palpable, the decision to surge troops to Afghanistan and take ownership of the war was one of the most difficult of his young presidency. The American public largely perceives the Afghan war not only as the nation’s longest, but also one of its least satisfying. In a 2015 ABC News/Washington Post public opinion poll, for instance, 66 percent of respondents said considering its costs to the United States versus benefits, the Afghan war was not worth fighting.

And yet the generals that Trump has surrounded himself with tend to see not one long war, but a conflict in distinct phases, during which the fortunes of the Taliban and allied extremist groups have waxed and waned depending on the level of U.S. engagement. First came the immediate post-9/11 phase in 2001-2002, when the Taliban were toppled and remnants of Al Qaeda were sent retreating into Pakistan, followed by years in which Afghanistan was largely pacified. Then the Pentagon shifted its focus and forces with the 2003 invasion of Iraq, however, and became mired in that conflict for years. By 2008-9 the Taliban had recaptured large swaths of territory in eastern and southern Afghanistan.

The Obama “surge” of 2009-2012 culminated in the deployment of nearly 100,000 U.S. troops, who took back that lost ground and helped build an Afghan Security Force of roughly 340,000 troops and national police. President Obama set a 2014 deadline for handing the war off to Afghan Security Forces, and had hoped to have all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by 2016. Those plans were put on hold after major Taliban gains. Today the Islamist insurgents again control or contest an estimated 40 percent of Afghanistan.

“I think it’s hugely important to remember why we went to Afghanistan in the first place, and why we have stayed: to ensure that Afghanistan is not once again a sanctuary for Al Qaeda, the way it was when Al Qaeda planned and conducted the initial training for the 9/11 attacks,” retired Gen. David Petraeus, who commanded the U.S. troop surges in both Iraq and Afghanistan, writes in an email.

Unfortunately because of the overly-rapid drawdown of U.S. forces and restrictions placed on coalition airpower, he noted, the Taliban has regained control of areas the U.S. drove them out of during the 2010-2012 surge. “That was quite predictable. And I have no doubt that if the Taliban are successful, the likes of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State will once again find sanctuary in Afghanistan,” Petraeus writes. “In the meantime, the Afghan government and security forces have proven that they are willing to fight and die for their country, and I firmly believe we should do more to support them.”

The Trump administration’s new Afghan strategy represents an important victory for Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser and the strongest proponent within the administration for a mini-surge of U.S. “train and assist” troops to break a stalemate and roll back recent Taliban gains. McMaster had been engaged in an increasingly bitter and public tug-of-war over Afghan policy with recently-fired White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, who wanted Trump to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan.

McMaster sold the new strategy to Trump as a correction to failed Obama administration policies. Even before joining the administration, for instance, he publicly criticized the Obama administration for setting artificial deadlines for troop withdrawals on the faulty assumption that “war will end if we just disengage from it,” as McMaster put it in one speech. Like many officers in the senior military ranks, McMaster believes that Obama’s premature withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011, and the subsequent rise of the Islamic State there, offered an abject lesson in how not to end a war. Retired Marine Gen. White House Chief of Staff Kelly is known to share that view.

“We saw with the precipitous withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and the subsequent fall of Mosul what happens when you withdraw before making military gains permanent,” McMaster said during a recent conference hosted by the Center for a New American Security. He also rejected the idea that the new strategy is simply doubling down on a failed 17-year-long effort.  “War does not progress linearly,” said McMaster. “The Taliban and its sponsors have taken advantage of some disconnects in what we are doing militarily, and what we’re trying to do politically. We’re trying to talk to the Taliban about political solutions as we’re disengaging militarily, sending the message that we’re leaving and you’re winning.”

As for intensifying pressure on Pakistan to finally end its tolerance of extremist groups using its territory for sanctuary, McMaster sees no alternative. “We need to insure that the leadership of the Taliban and Haqqani Network do not enjoy uncontested safe haven in Pakistan, where they feel no pressure,” said McMaster at the CNAS conference. “How can it be that Taliban fighters are destroying schools in Afghanistan, while Taliban leaders send their children to private schools in Pakistan?”
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[*] posted on 23-8-2017 at 06:13 PM

Afghanistan’s Special Operations Forces Transition from Division to Corps

(Source: Voice of America news; posted August 20, 2017)

By Noor Zahid

Afghanistan’s elite Special Operations Forces officially transitioned from a division to a corps, as part of a four-year security plan aimed at vastly improving the country's security forces.

“Today, it is a special day because the success you all have achieved for this nation is exemplified here,” Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said at the ceremony in Kabul on Sunday. “This year you defeated the enemy on the battlefield. I can see the results of your fight from last week and I see the huge improvement from last year.”

“To the enemy: our Special Forces will defeat you,” Ghani warned the militant groups that are fighting his government.

His country's forces are facing a growing threat posed by the Taliban and and Islamic State's self-styled Khorasan branch (IS-K), which emerged in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region two years ago.

U.S. Army General John Nicholson, NATO commander in Afghanistan, said the beginning of the corps would further bolster Afghan security forces’ capabilities against the militants.

“The activation of special operations corps today marks the beginning of the end for the enemy of Afghanistan. As we sit here today, Afghanistan commandos are defeating the Taliban across Afghanistan,” said Gen. Nicholson. “When these commandos appear on the battlefield, the enemy has no choice but to run or die.”

The Special Forces division, which currently consists of two special operations brigades will add two more brigades under its command and control, according to NATO’s Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan.

Shifting focus

Afghanistan has announced a four-year security plan to improve its security forces in the next few years to help beat the growing threat posed by Taliban, which recently made advances in Afghanistan and the Pakistan border region.

In addition to doubling the special operation forces from 17,000 and upgrading the division of special forces to a new military corps within the Afghan National Army structure, the four-year plan also includes “increasing aviation capabilities of Afghan Air Force and reforms inside the structure of Afghan security forces,” Ahmad Shah Katawazai, defense liaison at the Afghan embassy in Washington, told VOA.

Given the nature of the fight, Afghanistan has shifted its focus from conventional warfare to special operations.

“Most of the army offensive have been conducted by our special forces,” Afghan diplomat Katawazai told VOA.

Currently, Special Forces conduct 70 percent of the country's military operations. These elite forces are trained as quick reaction forces and conduct regular night raids against militants in various regions of the country.

U.S. President Donald Trump said Saturday his administration has decided how to deal with the 16-year war in Afghanistan.

One day after meeting at the Camp David presidential retreat with his national security team, Trump tweeted, “Important day spent at Camp David with our very talented generals and military leaders. Many decisions made, including on Afghanistan,” without providing details.

Roughly 13,000 NATO troops, including 8,400 Americans, are deployed in Afghanistan, carrying out anti-terrorism operations and training Afghanistan’s 300,000 security forces.

Kabul has said that the U.S. policy should include supporting the Afghan security plan as it needs more U.S. and NATO trainers as well as additional military hardware.

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[*] posted on 30-8-2017 at 06:48 PM

US Military Plan for Afghanistan 'Not There Yet'

(Source: Voice of America News; issued Aug 28, 2017)

PENTAGON --- The Pentagon is not ready to move forward with President Donald Trump's new strategy for the war in Afghanistan, since military officials say key decisions have yet to be made.

Defense officials said Monday that critical planning was still under way, and that there was no timeline for when it might be finished, despite the fact that the Afghanistan strategy remains a "top priority."

"We're just not there yet," a Pentagon spokesman, Colonel Robert Manning, told reporters. "There is work to be done here within the department and answers that need to be provided."

Following months of deliberations, the president unveiled his new, "condition-based approach" for Afghanistan at a military base outside Washington last week.

"Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy from now on," Trump told about 2,000 troops at Joint Base Myer.

The president offered few details about how many additional troops would be required in Afghanistan, or how they would support Afghan forces fighting both the Taliban and the Islamic State terror group.

"America's enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out. I will not say when we are going to attack, but attack we will," Trump said.

Sources speaking to VOA on condition they not be named said up to 4,000 more U.S. troops could be sent to Afghanistan under the new strategy.

And the top U.S. commander for the region, General Joseph Votel, told reporters last week that the first of those troops would be arriving "pretty quickly," in a matter of days or weeks.

But while he refused to contradict Votel, spokesman Manning appeared to walk back the timeline for sending reinforcements.

"We're approaching this very deliberately," Manning said. "Once the chairman [of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] provides the recommendations, the secretary will determine how to move forward and how many additional troops we'll need to send."

Manning's comments Monday seemed to reflect an ongoing back-and-forth discussion among U.S. officials about how to proceed on Afghanistan.

Earlier this month, prior to Trump's Afghanistan speech, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis seemed to suggest that most of the planning was done, and that it was simply a matter of deciding which approach would be best.

"We're sharpening each one of the options so you can see the pluses and minuses of each one, so that there's no longer any new data you're going to get. Now [we should] just make the decision," Mattis told Pentagon reporters August 14.

But following Trump's address, Mattis said he was waiting on the top U.S. military officer, Joint Chiefs Chairman General Joseph Dunford, to get him a plan "right away."

"We've obviously been discussing this option for some time," Mattis said during a visit to Iraq last week. "When he brings that to me, I'll determine how many more [troops] we need to send in."

One of the challenges for Pentagon planners is to determine exactly how many troops the U.S. has in Afghanistan.

Officials have put the number at about 8,400, tasked with carrying out counterterrorism operations against groups such as the Taliban or the IS Afghan affiliate. But that figure does not necessarily account for temporary support personnel or for defense contractors.

Military officials say the new plan for Afghanistan, once formed, may require reorganizing some forces already on the ground.

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[*] posted on 31-8-2017 at 03:11 PM

China, India, Pakistan face fallout from US strategy for Afghanistan

By: Aaron Mehta   13 hours ago

WASHINGTON — In rolling out his strategy for Afghanistan on Aug. 21, U.S. President Donald Trump made clear that a change in the relationship with Pakistan is in the cards.

But regional experts warn that any change in Washington’s posture to Islamabad will impact two regional powers — China, America’s greatest rival in the Pacific, and India, an increasingly vital ally — that are currently feuding over a border dispute.

Alice Hunt Friend, an Obama-era senior adviser to the deputy undersecretary of defense for strategy, plans and forces and country director for Pakistan, calls the region “a conundrum,” adding, “This is a Gordian Knot,” in part, because of the necessity to factor in China and India for any big picture strategy.

One attention-grabbing facet of Trump’s speech was a public call for India to take on a broader role in Afghanistan.

“We appreciate India’s important contributions to stability in Afghanistan, but India makes billions of dollars in trade with the United States, and we want them to help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development,” Trump said.

Friend, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, believes that such a call could, to Pakistan, sound like a threat to their longtime goal of “strategic depth” — essentially the idea that Pakistan cannot let itself be encircled by India in the south and an Indian-affiliated government in Afghanistan to the north.

The U.S. has historically been careful about balancing a desire for more Indian support in Afghanistan with Pakistan’s concerns, she said, which resulted in Indian funds being directed more towards economic and public development rather than military projects.

It’s unclear if that is set to change, but Trump’s India comments will likely not be received well in Islamabad, Vipin Narang, a regional expert who teaches at MIT, predicts.

“Pakistan is incredibly paranoid about Indian activity in Afghanistan removing its political ‘strategic depth,’” he said. “So you ask India to do more, and Pakistan’s incentive is to amplify its destructive behavior in Afghanistan to deny India, and the U.S., that space. The ISI has been working groups in Afghanistan for 40 years. They can do a whole world of hurt there,” Narang added, referring to Pakistan‘s Inter-Services Intelligence.

“Anyone who thinks this shift in Pakistan strategy will be easy to implement, remember: Pakistan negotiates with a gun to its own head,” Narang said.

Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, said that both India and Pakistan have interest in “low-level competition, a proxy war” with no intention of going beyond that, which is good news for the two nuclear-armed states but means neither is willing to give an inch at the moment.

An administration official acknowledged that persuading Pakistan to accept India’s role in Afghanistan will not be easy.
“Pakistan has legitimate concerns” surrounding an increased role by India there, the official said.

India has developed a lot of goodwill in Afghanistan for its presence there through development projects, the official said, and “the U.S. appreciates that; … we don’t see that as a direct threat to Pakistan.”

“To be clear, the U.S. recognizes that Pakistan has legitimate security issues in the future of Afghanistan,” the official continued. “So when we’re talking about India continuing its economic assistance to Afghanistan, we are by are no means discounting Pakistan’s interests in the region.”

Hunt remains skeptical that public outreach to India will get Pakistan to change how it does business.

“Pakistan’s fundamental calculus has not changed. Their feelings of anxiety about India have not changed. Their interest in having a stronger hand in Afghanistan than India has not changed,” she said. “So I’m not sure why we think scolding Pakistan in public and then offering their greatest adversary more access to Pakistan’s backyard is going to change behavior in some way.”

Chinese relations

If the U.S. is looking more towards India, Pakistan may counter by looking to move more closely with China, the analyst noted.

Pakistan has for years tried to counterbalance its alliance with the U.S. with one from China, including with its military relationships. Industrially, Pakistan has agreed to work with China to produce a new submarine fleet as well as working together to develop what in Pakistan is known as the JF-17 jet fighter. In addition, China has developed the Azmat-class missile boat for Pakistan, which will carry Chinese-built weapons.

And in June, a Pentagon report concluded that China will seek to develop a military base in Pakistan, which would represent only the second People’s Liberation Army military facility outside of China.

Islamabad is not going to run away from the U.S. entirely, of course. But as a signal to Washington that it has options, a public courting of Beijing would seem predictable, analysts agreed.

“The Indians don’t want to provoke the Pakistanis, and I don’t think the Chinese want to provoke the Indians. But the Pakistanis are very good at seeing who is up and who is down and recognizing when they are in and out of favor with the United States,” Hunt noted. “If they took away [from the speech] that they’re about to be out of favor again, at least on some levels of this many layered bilateral relationship, then again I think they relook their portfolio investments and start to shift some activities over to China.”

That could take the form of greater economic aid, closer military-industrial ties or increased military relationships.

Certainly, there is no love lost between India and China. Military personnel from the two nations recently faced off in Dolam, part of the Doklam region that is disputed territory claimed by both Bhutan and China. Tensions were raised after China attempted to build a road through the area and India intervened on behalf of Bhutan.

The standoff apparently ended Aug. 28 with both sides issuing deescalatory statements, a good reminder that anything that happens in South Asia will have repercussions for the two regional powers, said Narang.

However, Narang doubts the Doklam situation will most likely increase China’s interest in Pakistan, noting the incentive to do so already exists.

And at least one Chinese official isn’t being subtle about his messaging. Lijian Zhao, the Chinese ambassador to Pakistan, tweeted a video message on Aug. 24 about the positive military-to-military relations between the two nations.

“A friend in need is a friend indeed,” the tweet noted.

But, said Cronin, any shift by Pakistan towards China can always change in the future, adding, “Pakistan may come to regret the debt of having China so involved and try to balance back” given the strings attached.

Regardless of the short-term impact, the reality now is that you cannot have a regional strategy without it, including a plan for dealing with China’s influence, Friend said.

“We used to just talk about Pak-India-Afghan, and now I think we have to start talking about Pak-China-India-Afghan,” she said.
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[*] posted on 1-9-2017 at 02:36 PM

Goldfein: Air Force could see increased airstrikes, new deployments in Afghanistan

By: Stephen Losey and Valerie Insinna   12 hours ago

Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein talks about what's next for the U.S. Air Force in Afghanistan during an Aug. 25 interview in his office at the Pentagon. (Alan Lessig/Staff)

WASHINGTON — Now that President Donald Trump has set his administration’s new strategy in Afghanistan, the work has begun to figure out how to turn that into reality, said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein.

The United States will add an unspecified number of troops to Afghanistan, focus resources on ”killing terrorists,” and withdraw U.S. forces only when certain conditions are met, not on a timetable, Trump announced in an Aug. 21 speech.

Exactly what that means for the Air Force is still to be determined, Goldfein said in an exclusive Aug. 25 interview with Air Force Times and Defense News.

Goldfein and the other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have now begun a ”detailed planning” process to enact Trump’s strategy, which could entail increased airstrikes and more Air Force assets in Afghanistan, as Goldfein and Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told Reuters on Aug. 22. However, the finer points have not been set.

“I don‘t know exactly what that will look like in terms of specific numbers of aircraft or personnel,” Goldfein said. ”For me, this is about how do we optimize the air-ground team to accomplish the stated objectives. That’s the key. It’s not just, ‘I need six more of these or five more of these.’ It’s actually, ‘OK, here are the objectives, here is what the footprint needs to look like on the ground in order to optimize the footprint that we place in the air.’”

Goldfein said that ”optimizing the air-ground team” could mean changing the way U.S. ground troops ― including battlefield airmen ― work together with Air Force aircraft providing capabilities such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, as well as other airmen analyzing ISR information.

With ”the new stated objectives, is there now a new way that we ought to look at [that], in terms of using this very fixed capacity of ISR we have available?” Goldfein said. “Now, we’re designing a new campaign against a new strategy, [and] there very well may be a new way that we‘re approaching the business of ISR.”

Rules of engagement

In his speech, Trump also pledged to ”expand authorities for American armed forces to target the terrorists and criminal networks that sow violence and chaos throughout Afghanistan,” hinting that changes to current rules of engagement could be on the way.

Goldfein acknowledged current rules of engagement could be altered to make it easier for the Air Force to strike enemies in Afghanistan, but that discussion will occur among administration officials and the commanders in theater.

“It‘s hard to say, because that’s more of a policy-level discussion than necessarily a military-only discussion,” Goldfein said.

He added that he expects Army Gen. John Nicholson, the top commander in Afghanistan, and U.S. Central Command boss Army Gen. Joseph Votel to have that discussion with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

Goldfein said that Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, commander of U.S. Air Forces Central Command, and Maj. Gen. James Hecker, the top Air Force officer in Afghanistan, will ask him for any new capabilities they need. Then, once the Air Force provides Harrigian and Hecker additional resources, ”they’ll be the ones that will be driving this new way of doing business.”

In addition to ISR, the Air Force now provides close-air support, command and control, personnel recovery, airlift and aerial refueling operations in the area, Goldfein said.

As the Air Force plans for the next phase of the war, he said, some of those capabilities could increase. But, some could decrease, either because the Air Force decides those capabilities are needed elsewhere, or because Nicholson looks at the campaign strategy and decides he can take the risk of having less capability or needs a different footprint.

Added capability

The Afghan air force’s small fleet of A-29 Super Tucanos lacks the speed and range of American fighter jets, making it difficult for the country to provide its own tactical air support without U.S. help, said John Venable, a Heritage Foundation fellow and former F-16 pilot.

But the U.S. Air Force need only deploy a small footprint of combat aircraft — say, a squadron of F-15s, F-16s or A-10s on top of the aircraft already in Afghanistan — to meet the country’s demands.

“You’re talking about maybe one more squadron’s worth of fighters in that area at a location that would allow them to move rapidly and respond to troops in contact or call for close-air support in rapid fashion,” he said in an Aug. 29 interview. “I think the numbers and types [of aircraft] are all available to us right now in the Air Force, and we can actually go over there with just a little bit more force sizing and do incredible work for the United States Army, for special ops, for the Marines that are there, and for the Afghans that are there.”

Goldfein said it’s hard to say now what the Air Force’s footprint will look like, and compared the situation to his time as AFCENT commander during the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011.

Although forces were withdrawing during that period, he said, the number of AFCENT aircraft required there actually increased, because they were providing more cover for units packing up.

“As they packed up organic fire capability, I became their organic fire,” Goldfein said. ”So the overall footprint and the makeup of the air component changed as we shifted from offensive combat operations, to then packing and moving ourselves out of Iraq. The force changed. The ways we did business changed. ... That‘s the way we’re going to look at this now. So, an updated strategy and a very clear intent. Now we’ll do what you know we do pretty well, which is detailed planning against those objectives.”

Light attack aircraft: A solution to an emerging problem?
An expansion of air power in the region could trigger a requirement for more equipment, particularly in the area of light attack aircraft. The U.S. Air Force has already purchased the A-29 turboprop planes for the Afghan air force, and it provides training on how to fly, maintain and provide logistics support for the fledgling fleet of attack craft.

“I’m not sure yet how that will expand, but if there is a need, that [request] will come to the services and we’ll see if we can meet it,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said in a press conference Friday.

Should the Afghan air force determine it wants additional A-29s, it would work on a government-to-government basis with the State Department to purchase those aircraft, added Goldfein during the interview.

But Venable of the Heritage Foundation is skeptical that equipping the Afghans with additional A-29s would be necessary or obviate the need for additional U.S. Air Force presence, in part because the Super Tucano has limited capability compared to legacy U.S. combat aircraft.

“[The A-29s] don’t have the speed with which to respond to multiple troops in contact in a near simultaneous fashion, so they’re going to rely on our Air Force to do that,” he said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force is also considering buying a couple hundred light attack aircraft to help conduct counterterrorism operations in the Middle East. This month, the service began testing four planes at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico: the A-29 built by Sierra Nevada Corp. and Embraer; the AT-802L Longsword manufactured by Air Tractor and L3 Technologies; and the Scorpion jet and AT-6 Wolverine, both of which are made by Textron.

If all goes well, the Air Force could bring some of those aircraft to a combat demonstration in the Middle East next year, Wilson said during an Aug. 9 media day.

The location of the combat demo has not been set, but it’s possible the aircraft could be sent to Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan to assess whether they can cheaply and successfully conduct low-end missions.
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[*] posted on 1-9-2017 at 02:44 PM

Seeking help with Afghanistan, US holds up $255M to Pakistan

By: Josh Lederman, The Associated Press   1 hour ago

Pakistani protesters burn an effigy of U.S. President Donald Trump in Peshawar, Pakistan, Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017. Protesters objected to Trump's allegation that Islamabad is harboring militants who battle U.S. forces in Afghanistan. (Muhammad Sajjad/AP)

WASHINGTON — The United States will hold up $255 million in military assistance for Pakistan until it cracks down on extremist groups that threaten neighboring Afghanistan, officials said Thursday, in the first concrete step since President Donald Trump vowed to ramp up pressure on Pakistan.

In his new strategy for the 16-year Afghan war, Trump singled out Pakistan for harboring Taliban leaders and other militants that are battling American troops in Afghanistan. Trump’s tough words about Pakistan, a troubled U.S. security partner, infuriated Islamabad and triggered anti-U.S. protests that Pakistani police have had to use tear gas to disperse.

Although the Trump administration had floated the possibility of curtailing aid, hitting Islamabad with sanctions or severing its status as a major non-NATO ally, it had been unclear until Thursday exactly what types of measures the administration would pursue, or how quickly.

“We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting,” Trump said in his Afghanistan speech. “But that will have to change.”

Trump’s administration had faced a Sept. 30 deadline either to say that it planned to spend the $255 million, or lose it. Ahead of that deadline, the administration told Congress that it will indeed use the money, but is putting a “pause” on spending it or on assigning any funds to specific sales of military equipment to the Pakistanis.

State Department officials said the funds won’t be released until the U.S. sees that Pakistan is more successfully addressing U.S. concerns about safe havens in the country for groups including the Haqqani network, which is allied with the Afghan Taliban and has been blamed for some of Afghanistan’s worst attacks. The officials weren’t authorized to comment by name and requested anonymity.

But Pakistan has long maintained that its purported Taliban ties and tolerance of extremists groups are overblown, arguing it is already doing its best to help the U.S. stabilize Afghanistan. And American officials wouldn’t describe any specific steps they were demanding that Pakistan take, nor would they say whether they’d even communicated such steps privately to the Pakistanis.

The vague nature of the U.S. demands on Pakistan, coupled with the split-the-difference approach of putting the promised funds aside indefinitely, suggested the Trump administration was still struggling to settle on its Pakistan policy even after the president unveiled it with fanfare in a prime-time address. On Afghanistan, too, the plan is a work in progress, with Pentagon officials still determining a final number for how many more U.S. troops will be sent to Afghanistan.

“This is symbolic more than significant, on both sides,” said Ambassador Jim Jeffries, a former longtime diplomat now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The Pakistanis will push the usual buttons of protests and complaints and diplomatic anger, but they will also think, ‘Boy, what else will Trump do?’”

Islamabad has already reacted angrily to Trump’s allegation that the country harbors extremists, with the country’s lower house of parliament passing a resolution this week denouncing his claim. Security analyst have also warned that isolating Pakistan could lead it to seek closer ties with Russia, Iran and China — rival powers whose influence in the region is a longstanding concern for the U.S.

The U.S. has sought before to use aid to Pakistan as leverage to secure its cooperation on Afghanistan, previously withholding Coalition Support Funds. To Pakistan’s dismay, Trump has also dangled the possibility of bringing India — Pakistan’s archenemy — deeper into the Afghanistan process unless Pakistan is more cooperative.

Pakistan has fought for years with the Pakistani Taliban and homegrown extremists, but at the same time has tolerated the Afghan Taliban and the related Haqqani network. It’s widely accepted that Afghanistan’s Taliban leaders are living in Pakistan and that Pakistani hospitals treat the group’s wounded.
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[*] posted on 19-9-2017 at 03:17 PM

The Afghanistan strategy we’ve been waiting for [Commentary]

11 hours ago

Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., visited Afghanistan to meet with U.S. military leaders, diplomats, and Afghan political officials about the threat of terrorism and instability, and America’s role in the region. (Sen. David Perdue)

The hot, dry air hit us like a wave as we stepped off the ramp of the CH-47 helicopter onto the gravel surrounding Technical Base Gamberi in East Afghanistan. As a young U.S. Army officer greeted us, he warned that the base was often the target of indirect fire. Another jarring reminder that American forces are still engaged in the longest war in our nation’s history in Afghanistan.

It was July 4th, Independence Day, and I was in Afghanistan to meet with U.S. military leaders, diplomats, and Afghan political officials about another independence – that of Afghanistan’s freedom from the tyranny of terrorism and instability – and America’s role in the region.

Meanwhile in Washington, President Trump and Defense Secretary Mattis prepared to outline a new strategy for American involvement in Afghanistan. Our group, a mix of Republican and Democrat senators on the Armed Services Committee, personally visited with General Nicholson, his commanders, Afghan military leaders, and our troops on the ground. Their message to us was loud and clear: renewed support and unwavering leadership from the Trump White House, the kind they saw last month, is exactly what they have needed.

For too long, America’s strategy in Afghanistan was driven by politics, leading to arbitrary troop caps and unreasonable timetables for troop withdrawal. Where the Obama Administration saw an exit strategy as a kept campaign promise, our enemies saw a window of opportunity and a lack of resolve. No matter how capable our forces, diplomats, and alliances, we could not win with one hand tied behind our back and no definition of victory.

Finally, the gloves are off. President Trump and Secretary Mattis have given our troops exactly what they need: an outline for a clear way forward for American involvement in Afghanistan. The plan is already being implemented, as we’ve seen within by Secretary Mattis authorizing 3,500 more troops to Afghanistan.

This is a plan that Democrats and Republicans have been waiting to see for 16 years. It incorporates all the tools we have available, but also recognizes for the first time that we need a regional approach. As I saw firsthand, you can’t solve Afghanistan without Pakistan, and you can’t solve Pakistan without India. This ripple effect is key to achieving a sustainable solution.

First, President Trump made it crystal clear that Pakistan has to start pulling its weight. During my trip, we also spent time in South Waziristan in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan with General Qamar Bajwa, the Chief of Staff of the Pakistani Army. While Pakistan is making great strides in improving border posts and operations with the assistance of U.S. forces, it was obvious that there is still more to be done.

There is support for the region’s terrorist groups among some of the highest echelons of Pakistan’s leadership. President Trump is right to confront them for it. As long as groups such as the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and Haqqani network can find safe haven, they can and will continue to find ways to fight and provoke instability. State support for terrorist proxies must stop, and it’s time to turn the pressure up a notch.

President Trump’s plan also taps into the need for new, joint cross-border operations between Afghanistan and Pakistan along the Durand Line, something our delegation advocated for during our trip. This will help build trust, reduce safe haven territories, and improve critical communication between Afghan and Pakistani forces.

It’s refreshing that we now have a commander-in-chief who listens to his military leaders and understands we need a better, wiser approach in Afghanistan. He has given us a clear mission, spelled out what will define victory, and given us a broader sense of how to engage the region in a productive dialogue.

A strategy of this scale, after 16 years of war, building on the successes and sacrifices of thousands of soldiers, is not something President Trump made lightly. In his recent speech laying out his vision for Afghanistan, President Trump said, “My original instinct was to pull out – and historically, I like following my instincts.” However, he also acknowledged that “decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.”

With this speech and the months of planning a strategy that have started us on a path to success, President Trump has demonstrated both his readiness to be commander-in-chief and his focus on results over politics.

As we mark 16 years since the first American and British airstrikes on the Taliban, we must remember why we are in Afghanistan. This region is home to the greatest density of terror groups in the world, including the one that plotted the horrific terrorist attack on our nation on 9/11. The security vacuum in Afghanistan and Pakistan has given these groups a safe haven from which they can plan and mount further attacks on the West – and possibly our homeland – for too long.

We cannot afford to forget the lessons of 9/11. President Trump understands that, and his new strategy defines success in Afghanistan and puts us on a strong pathway to get there.

President Trump is reengaging with the rest of the world, reaffirming our commitments with our allies, and clearly defining American interests for other countries. This is exactly the type of leadership American and global leaders have been waiting for.

Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., is the only Fortune 500 CEO in Congress and is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
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[*] posted on 4-10-2017 at 04:22 PM

Mattis reveals new rules of engagement

By: Aaron Mehta   10 hours ago

U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles provide air support and drop bombs in support of Operation Hammer Down II. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Michael B. Keller)

WASHINGTON – U.S. forces are no longer bound by requirements to be in contact with enemy forces in Afghanistan before opening fire, thanks to a change in rules of engagement orchestrated by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.

Mattis, appearing on Capitol Hill Tuesday alongside Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joe Dunford told a pair of congressional hearings that the White House gave him a free hand to reconsider the rules of engagement and alter them to speed the battle against the Taliban if need be.

Over the last several years, many top officials in Washington have advocated for a loosening of the rules of engagement that dictate how troops conduct combat operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

Changes could allow the U.S. military to move more quickly to defeat terrorist organizations. Rules of engagement are classified, and military officials generally do not discuss them.

However, there were signs that changes to those rules of engagement were coming. In his Aug. 21 speech announcing his Afghianstan strategy, President Donald Trump said he would ”lift restrictions and expand authorities” for warfighters.

”We will also expand authorities for American armed forces to target the terrorists and criminal networks that sow violence and chaos throughout Afghanistan,” Trump said at the time.

Mattis has taken that freedom and implemented at least two changes: The removal of proximity requirements for strikes against Taliban forces, and the spreading out of U.S. and allied advisors to lower-level Afghan units.

“You see some of the results of releasing our military from, for example, a proximity requirement — how close was the enemy to the Afghan or the U.S.-advised special forces,” Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee in the morning.

“That is no longer the case, for example. So these kind of restrictions that did not allow us to employ the airpower fully have been removed, yes.”

“We are no longer bound by the need for proximity to our forces,” Mattis told the House Armed Services Committee in the afternoon. “It used to be we have to basically be in contact with that enemy.”

“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, commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan] has the wherewithal to make that decision,” he added.

“Wherever we find them, anyone who is trying to throw the NATO plan off, trying to attack the Afghan government, then we can go after them,” Mattis said.

The second change involves, essentially, dispersing U.S. advisers among the Afghan units that are closer to the enemy forces.

“Those units with NATO and American advisers win, and those without them often do not win,” Mattis said. “So we are going to spread the number of units with advisers to bring that air support to win.”

Asked to expand on that, Mattis described the change as “now being able to bring this fire support to bear where we could not [before], whether it be for proximity or [because] we were not with those units.

Previously, U.S. forces were only working alongside Afghans at the highest headquarters level, Dunford said, not down at the brigade or battalion level where the “decisive action” is occurring. That is important, because U.S. air support requires U.S. advisers to call them in.

Air power “wasn’t being delivered to those Afghan units most relevant in the fight because we didn’t [previously] have the authority to put advisers down in that level of the fight,” Dunford added. “That has, and it will, make us more effective.”

However, the secretary was quick to stress that the U.S. would still do everything “humanly possible” to avoid civilian deaths, especially given the history of groups like the Taliban and Islamic State group hiding among civilian populations.
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[*] posted on 4-10-2017 at 04:27 PM

The Pentagon has a new acronym for Afghanistan. Can it win the war?

By: Aaron Mehta   14 hours ago

A goal, according to both Mattis and Dunford, us to force the Taliban to the table by convincing them that there is no way the group can militarily defeat American-backed Afghan forces. (Capt. Charlie Emmons/U.S. Army)

WASHINGTON ― The Trump administration’s Afghanistan strategy has a new acronym, one which the Pentagon’s top officials say will lay the groundwork for a stable Afghanistan in the future.

Appearing in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee, U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis described the strategy as “R4+S,” which stands for “regionalize, realign, reinforce, reconcile and sustain.”

Both Mattis and Gen. Joe Dunford, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, sought to draw a line between U.S. President Donald Trump’s strategy and that of the Obama administration, with Dunford flatly stating that the U.S. drawdown was “too far and too fast” to allow for success.

But senators expressed skepticism that the strategy truly would change anything on the ground after 16 years of ongoing conflict.

Regionalize, in this case, means taking a “holistic, comprehensive view: India, Pakistan, Iran, Russia and China.”

The relationship between Pakistan and India was highlighted in Trump’s strategy speech, and it again was an early focus of comments at the committee hearing, with both Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the chairman and ranking member of the committee respectively, calling out Islamabad as a bad actor in the region.

Realign, Mattis said, means “we are shifting our main effort to align more advisers who can provide training and advisory support at the battalion and brigade level. The fighting will continue to be carried out by our Afghan partners, but our advisers will accompany tactical units to advise and bring NATO fire support to bear when needed.”

Reinforce refers to the more than 3,000 American forces heading to Afghanistan as a boost, as well as a requested plus-up from NATO forces being discussed among allies.

On this point, McCain expressed skepticism, saying he has “yet to hear a compelling case for why this modest increase in U.S. forces will create” a better condition on the ground, adding that there were as many as 100,000 troops there in the past that could not solve the issue.

The fourth “R” is reconcile, which Mattis cast as bringing groups outside the Afghan government into the system. That includes “convincing our foes that the coalition is committed to a conditions-based outcome, we intend to drive fence-sitters and those who will see that we’re not quitting this fight to reconcile with the Afghan national government,” Mattis said.

The goal, both Mattis and Dunford said, was to force the Taliban to the table by convincing them that there is no way the group can militarily defeat American-backed Afghan forces.

The final aspect, sustain, was not spelled out in detail from Mattis, but appears largely self-explanatory. The U.S. is likely to stay in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future, but the goal remains to create a stable government that can last.

Dunford emphasized that last point when he said corruption in Afghanistan is the “single greatest roadblock” to long-term security in the region, later adding that the Taliban will no longer be able to believe that if they just hold out long enough, the U.S. will withdraw.

Part of the Trump strategy for Afghanistan has involved less sharing of information about troop movements and increases, something that administration officials, including Mattis, have publicly said would assist enemy forces.

During the hearing, Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, D-N.Y., pushed Mattis on whether he would be “honest with the American people” about troop numbers, to which Mattis replied: “No ma'am, if it involves telling the enemy something that will help them.”

However, Mattis said that “in any terms of honesty with this committee, in private, at any time, we will get as specific as you wish. No reservations at all in private. In talking with the American people, we will tell them we are adding the troops.

We’ll give approximate numbers. We’re not hiding this. But I’d rather not say the specific capabilities, the specific numbers.”
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[*] posted on 2-11-2017 at 12:24 PM

Analysis: Afghanistan’s AFV fleet continues to grow

Samuel Cranny-Evans - IHS Jane's Defence Weekly

01 November 2017

As insurgent groups in Afghanistan intensify their attacks against government forces, the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) are seeking to enhance their level of protection and firepower by acquiring new armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs).

There have been two important AFV-related sales to the ANA in 2017: one for the Textron Marine & Land Systems’ Commando Select, also known by the ANA as the Mobile Strike Force Vehicle (MSFV), and another for a total of 6,576 capability expansion kits for the AM General M1151A1B1 Humvees in service with the Afghan security forces.

The total value of these two Foreign Military Sale (FMS) contracts awarded by the US Army amounts to USD378.9 million, which shows the kind of financial commitment required to strengthen the capabilities of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP).

(137 of 862 words)
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[*] posted on 28-11-2017 at 04:02 PM

War in Afghanistan Heats Up as Fight Against ISIS Winds Down

Soldiers from, the 101st Airborne Division (AASLT) Corps board a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter in preparation for a partnered force protection patrol in Laghman province Sept. 23, 2015. (U.S. Army/Capt. Jarrod Morris)

Posted By: Richard Sisk November 27, 2017

Another telling sign that the wars against ISIS in Iraq and Syria were winding down and entering the counter-insurgency phase recently came from the U.S. commander in Afghanistan.

Army Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan and the NATO Resolute Support mission, said that he had used a B-52 bomber and an F-22 Raptor advanced fighter normally assigned to the Iraq/Syria theaters to bomb suspected drug havens in Afghanistan.

The use of the B-52, flying out of Al Udeid airbase in Qatar, and the F-22, flying out of Al Dhafra airbase in the United Arab Emirates, showed that “Things have gone well in Iraq and Syria,” Nicholson said last Monday in a video briefing from Kabul to the Pentagon.

“So we’re beginning to see the effects of a shift of resources” from Iraq and Syria to Afghanistan, Nicholson said. The shift “will increase over the course of the winter, going into the spring, as the situation continues to improve there” in Iraq and Syria.

As reported in September by’s Oriana Pawlyk, the Air Force has also sent refueling tankers to Afghanistan and boosted the number of F-16s in Afghanistan from 12 to 18.

Lt. Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian, commander of U.S. Air Forces Central Command, told reporters that he would be working with Nicholson’s staff “on how to best synchronize his advise-and-assist strategy going forward to optimize the placement of the air assets.”

Nicholson’s comments on the shift in assets followed on earlier statements by officials of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve [CJTF-OIR) that the effort to drive the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria [ISIS] from its last strongholds had reached the stage where the focus could be turned to recovery and counter-terror operations in both Iraq and Syria.

In a Nov. 7 briefing to the Pentagon from Iraq, Air Force Brig. Gen. Andrew Croft, deputy air commander of Combined Joint Forces Land Component CJTF-OIR, said that the number of air strikes has been dropping significantly as the coalition runs out of targets.

He said that “the level of air support, if you’re measuring it in number of strikes, has dropped by about 60 to 70 percent in the last month — that’s the month of October — compared to the previous average over the last eight or nine months.”

“That’s indicative of the fact that ISIS is collapsing, not only as a physical caliphate, but also in ownership of land,” Croft said. “So the number of targets has dropped dramatically, particularly in the last month.”

“From the air component perspective, you’re going to see those number of strikes drop even further,” Croft said, “but what you will see is a continued requirement for aircraft, such as our remotely piloted aircraft — those are the unmanned aircraft — and some manned aircraft to do surveillance and reconnaissance.”

In Iraq, “one of our challenges is continuing to find pockets of ISIS as they are — have moved to the desert, like the Jazira Desert, for instance, which is northeast of al-Qaim,” a town on the Syrian border that fell to the Iraqi Security Forces [ISF] earlier this month, Croft said.

On Friday, the Defense Department said in a release that a total of 10 airstrikes had been conducted in Iraq and Syria from Nov. 10-23. On several days in that period, there were no airstrikes, DoD said.

The diminishing threat from ISIS was outlined last week in a study by the Britain-based Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center [JTIC], which reported that the number of attacks in Iraq has fallen to its lowest level since ISIS declared a “caliphate” in 2014.

“Non-state armed group attacks and resulting fatalities represented the lowest monthly totals since the formation of ISIS and the declaration of the caliphate in June 2014, highlighting the extent of the decrease in operational activity by the group in Iraq,” the report said.

“The 126 attacks in October represented almost half the peak recorded in January 2017, while the 102 fatalities represented an 80.0 percent decrease from November 2016,” the report said.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has been reluctant to declare that ISIS has been defeated in Iraq until the desert area north of al-Qaim is cleared. On Sunday, the ISF announced that a clearing operation in the desert had begun.

“The objective behind the operation is to prevent remaining Daesh [ISIS] groups from melting into the desert region and using it as a base for future attacks,” the ISF said.

Earlier this month, Army Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for CJTF-OIR, said operations against ISIS in Syria by the U.S-backed Syrian Democratic Forces had progressed to the point that State Department officials were now on the ground to participate in recovery efforts.

“Even as we remain focused on the defeat and destruction of ISIS, the coalition is supporting stabilization efforts, so Syrian cities like Raqqa and Tabqa can recover after years of fighting and brutal ISIS occupation,” Dillon said in a Nov. 14 briefing from Baghdad to the Pentagon.

“Many of these stabilization efforts in Syria are coordinated through the U.S. State Department’s Syrian Transition Assistance and Response Team, or START, and they support the locally-led civil councils” in areas ISIS has lost to the SDF, Dillon said.

The U.S. has previously been reluctant to confirm the presence U.S. aid workers in Syria, or even the existence of the START team. In June, the New York Times reported that seven START team members were in Syria.

However, the White House has repeatedly said that the U.S. will support minimal recovery efforts but will not engage in so-called “nation building.”

In August, Brett McGurk, the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, told reporters that the U.S. will be involved only in what he called “stabilization.”

“This is not reconstruction, it’s not nation building,” he said. “Stabilization is demining, rubble removal so that trucks and equipment can get into areas of need. It means basic electricity, sewage, water, the basic essentials to allow populations to come back to their home,” McGurk said.

“Now, sometimes we meet with local councils and they say, ‘We really want you, the United States, to help us with the–you’re going to run the hospitals, aren’t you? You’re going to run our school system.’ And no, we’re not–we’re not doing that,” McGurk said.

“We’ve learned some lessons and we’re not very good at that, and also that is not our responsibility. We will do basic stabilization,” he said.

As the ISIS “caliphate” crumbles, the main concern for the White House and DoD is that the sectarian rifts that gave rise to the jihadists in the first place will return.

In Iraq, the non-binding independence referendum held by the Kurdish Regional Government [KRG] in September led to clashes between the ISF and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and the loss by the KRG of the oil city of Kirkuk.

In Syria, NATO-ally Turkey has pressed the U.S. to stop arming the mostly-Kurdish SDF.

Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose support for the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad has mostly crushed rebel groups, showed his own eagerness to begin winding down the Russian presence.

Following a meeting with Assad in Crimea, Putin said “We still have a long way to go before we achieve a complete victory over terrorists. But as far as our joint work in fighting terrorism on the territory of Syria is concerned, this military operation is indeed wrapping up.”

Assad said that he gave Putin “and all Russian people our greetings and gratitude for all of the efforts that Russia made to save our country.”

Last Tuesday, President Donald Trump said “We had a great [phone] call with President Putin. We’re talking about peace in Syria — very important. We’re talking about North Korea. We had a call that lasted almost an hour and a half,” he said, and “we’re talking very strongly about bringing peace for Syria.”

In a statement later, the White House said that “Both presidents also stressed the importance of implementing U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254, and supporting the U.N.-led Geneva Process to peacefully resolve the Syrian civil war, end the humanitarian crisis, allow displaced Syrians to return home, and ensure the stability of a unified Syria free of malign intervention and terrorist safe havens.”

“The two presidents affirmed the importance of fighting terrorism together throughout the Middle East and Central Asia and agreed to explore ways to further cooperate in the fight against ISIS, al-Qaida, the Taliban, and other terrorist organizations,” the White House statement said.

— Richard Sisk can be reached at
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[*] posted on 29-11-2017 at 08:50 PM

More Than 1K US Troops to Join Afghans on Offense: Nicholson

Soldiers run to their firing positions during a marksmanship competition as part of the celebration of Marne Week Forward at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, Nov. 16, 2017. (Photo by Ellen Lovett/U.S. Forces Afghanistan)

Posted By: Brendan McGarry November 28, 2017

More than 1,000 specially-trained U.S. advisors will go on offense with Afghan units at the battalion level in the spring under an ambitious plan to reverse Taliban gains and drive the insurgents to the bargaining table in two years, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan said Tuesday.

“Yes, there will be greater risk, absolutely” for the advisors now training at Fort Benning, Georgia,  to serve in the new Security Force Assistance Brigades [SFAB] with the Afghans, said Army Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S.-Forces Afghanistan and the NATO Resolute Support mission.

Working as teams, the SFAB troops from all services will be involved in “combat advising at the tactical level, so they’ll go down to the “Kandak” level, the battalion level” with units of the Afghan National Army and the Afghan Special Forces, Nicholson said in a video briefing from Kabul to the Pentagon.

“This will enable us to help the Afghans with their offensive operations simultaneously in multiple  quarters” with the goal of gaining control of 80 percent of the population within two years and possibly forcing the Taliban into peace talks on ending the 16-year-old war, Nicholson said.

When the plan goes operational next spring, “you’re looking at well over 1000 advisors out at any given time” with the Afghans, Nicholson said. “As we roll into the spring — March/April — they will go on the offensive. ”

To limit risk, “we’re going to great lengths to ensure force protection” with a “whole array of support behind them” to include overhead reconnaissance, ground and air fire support, and medevac availability when they go into the field, Nicholson said.

The plan to put advisors in the field grew out of President Donald Trump’s Aug. 21 decision to switch to a “conditions-based” strategy in Afghanistan and authorize the deployment of at least 3,000 additional troops, Nicholson said.

Trump has acknowledged that he made the decision on the new strategy reluctantly and against his initial instinct, which was to withdraw U.S. forces completely.

Trump also reportedly wanted to sack Nicholson, but was talked out of it by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, a former commander of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan.

Nicholson has repeatedly said that the war was at a “stalemate,’ but he called the new strategy a “game-changer,” adding that “It’s fair to say we’re on a path to a win.”

The Pentagon now says that there are 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, although a Defense Manpower Data Center report prepared in September and released earlier this month said there were 15,298 U.S. service members in Afghanistan.

With the additional forces, the U.S. is now committed to Afghanistan indefinitely, Nicholson said. “We will be here until the job is done.” he said.

As he has previously, Nicholson took issue with reports from United Nations agencies, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction [SIGAR] and think tanks which have portrayed a resilient Taliban increasingly well-funded by the booming poppy trade that supplies much of the world’s heroin.

Nicholson said that the Taliban had given up on trying to seize provincial capitals and was now focused on guerilla warfare at the district level. He said that “represented a lowering of ambition by the enemy.”

“Increasingly, they are principally interested in making money” from the drug trade, Nicholson. “They are fighting to protect their revenue stream” and have essentially transformed from a jihadi movement into a “narco-terrorist” drug cartel, he said.

Coupled with the new U.S. strategy, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani with coalition backing has embarked on revamping the entire command structure of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces [ANDSF].

Ghani has replaced four of five corps commanders, Nicholson said, and next year will push 2,150 colonels and generals into retirement “with dignity” to allow a younger generation of officers to assume command.

To curb corruption in the Afghan forces, Nicholson said that the U.S. was initiating another round of identity verification to eliminate from the rolls so-called “ghost soldiers” — those who draw salaries but are absent from the ranks.

The U.S. has tried biometrical data such as retinal scans and fingerprinting before, but Nicholson expressed confidence that the new effort would yield results to ensure that pay only goes to a “biometrically identified soldier.”

Nicholson was less confident on receiving cooperation from Pakistan, which Trump has deemed as essential in carrying out the new strategy.

The Taliban still maintain well-known safe havens in the Quetta and Peshawar areas of Pakistan, Nicholson said, and fighters crossing from Pakistan provide recruits for the Islamic State offshoot known as Islamic State-Khorasan Province, or ISIS-K.

“We have been very direct and very clear with the Pakistanis” on curbing the Taliban, Nicholson said, but “we have not seen those changes implemented yet.”

“We are hoping to see those changes, we are hoping to work together with the Pakistanis going forward to eliminate terrorists who are crossing” the border, Nicholson said.
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[*] posted on 13-12-2017 at 03:45 PM

In One Corner of Afghanistan, America Is Beating Islamic State

The Afghanistan war is at a stalemate, but in Achin, on the Pakistan border, the U.S. and its Afghan allies have driven militants from farms and villages

By Michael M. Phillips

Updated Dec. 10, 2017 6:06 p.m. ET

ACHIN, Afghanistan—The Special Forces captain gestured to the Takhto Valley, a brown-hued no man’s land of fallow fields and abandoned mud-brick compounds within easy reach of Islamic State gunners.

“Everything over there is bad,” he said.

Then the captain turned toward the Pekha Valley, an expanse of emerald-green fields of corn and wheat. Farmers there returned home this summer as Afghan and U.S. troops drove Islamic State fighters into the mountains on the Pakistan border. “Everything that way,” he said, “is better.”

The war in Afghanistan is at a stalemate, according to Gen. John Nicholson, the top American commander in Afghanistan. But in Achin, the U.S. and its Afghan allies are winning on a battlefront demarcated in green and brown.

Islamic State fighters poured into Afghanistan in 2014 and turned this region—particularly the Pekha, Takhto and Mohmand valleys—into a branch of the caliphate they had declared in Syria and Iraq. Militants imposed a harsh brand of Islam and hunted those who had worked for the Kabul government.

Afghan and U.S. special-operations troops this year have pushed back Islamic State in a monthslong offense largely overshadowed by high-profile battles to retake militant-held cities in Syria and Iraq.

On Saturday, Iraq claimed victory over Islamic State, more than three years after the insurgents overran about a third of the country. Military commanders said Iraqi forces had finished clearing a desert area in the west of the country, taking control of the border with Syria.

The campaign in eastern Afghanistan plays to U.S. strengths. The enemy is now holed up in unforgiving mountains. Islamic State fighters, isolated from civilians, are vulnerable to American airstrikes. On the ground, Green Berets are paired with some of the best Afghan units, elite commando companies.

This advance against Islamic State in Achin contrasts with the fight elsewhere in Afghanistan against the Taliban and other insurgent groups who live among civilians and are difficult to target. Militants, including alleged adherents of Islamic State, carry out attention-grabbing suicide attacks in Kabul intended to make the government appear weak.

U.S. military analysts estimate as many as 1,500 Islamic State fighters remain in Afghanistan, including areas along the Pakistan border that militants claim for their caliphate. The U.S. is conducting a bombing campaign to trap them in the mountains over winter, a top U.S. commander said.

The Wall Street Journal in October was granted exclusive access to allied forces on the Islamic State front. U.S. Special Forces operate from two outposts about 1,000 yards apart, both sandbagged mud-brick buildings that look out onto Islamic State turf, about 7 miles from snow-covered peaks in Pakistan. The U.S. military didn’t allow identification of its special-operations troops or commanders for this story.

Sniper shots

One night, U.S. troops spotted two Islamic State fighters creeping toward the front lines. Red tracer fire arced across Takhto Valley in response. A U.S. plane dropped a 2,000-lb. bomb. The explosion was so powerful that a 3-pound chunk of shrapnel from the bomb flew more than a mile and crashed into the Green Beret outpost, missing a sleeping American soldier by 20 feet.

The next morning, an Islamic State sniper took a shot or two at one outpost just as a U.S.-Afghan patrol prepared to leave. The soldiers took cover behind a dirt berm and fired bursts of machine-gun fire, volleys from grenade launchers and dozens of mortar rounds into the ridgelines, which are dotted with concealed enemy positions.

A couple of nights after that, three Green Berets and an Afghan minesweeper climbed onto a ridge overlooking Mohmand Valley, scrambling over loose rocks in the darkness. They were looking for a hidden location from which to monitor Islamic State fighters below. Instead, they noticed a rocky redoubt where they believe the sniper had hidden.

The next morning, the Green Berets guided a U.S. jet to the spot. The plane dropped two 500-lb. bombs, sending the stone emplacement sliding down the mountainside.

Pvt. Ziyaulhaq, an Afghan commando. Photo: Michael M. Phillips/The Wall Street Journal

“A lot of places, you don’t know where the enemy is,” a top U.S. special operations commander told his soldiers during a visit to the battlefront. “At least you know they’re down that valley.”

The militants operate a pirate radio station that broadcasts messages into Afghan villages. “They say they are Muslims intent on establishing an Islamic State, and they invite people to join them,” said Pvt. Ziyaulhaq, a commando. Like many Afghans, he goes by one name. He grew up nearby, and his family, which had moved north to avoid insurgent violence, has returned.

The Americans and Afghans eavesdrop on Islamic State communications in Urdu, Uzbek and Russian, languages that suggest the militants include Pakistani, Uzbek and Chechen men.

Insurgents know their calls are being intercepted and are careful to speak in vagaries: “That place where we were yesterday,” or “Bring that thing.”

They are sometimes caught in moments of candor, however. In one conversation, an Islamic State fighter complained that his commanders had confiscated money from the sale of gems. Mohmand Valley’s jade mine is on the Islamic State side of the battlefront.

And in a conversation between a fighter and a mullah, or religious leader, the fighter said a witness could confirm that the fighter had delivered 300,000 rupees in ransom money from an Islamic State kidnapping. “The hostage was released,” the fighter said in a recorded conversation heard by the Journal. “I have no idea who got the rest of the money.”

Later, the mullah talked derisively about another Islamic State fighter. “He has become an apostate,” the mullah said. “He ran away.”

A bomb from U.S. aircraft targets an Islamic State fighting position. Photo: no credit available

Troop buildup

“This is not an easy war,” Maj. Gen. Bismillah Waziri, commander of Afghan special-operations forces, said in an interview.

The Taliban control or contest a third of Afghan territory, although they haven’t expanded their reach in the past year, Gen. Nicholson said in November.

Over the summer, President Donald Trump reversed Barack Obama’s practice of setting public deadlines for the U.S. commitment to the war. The Obama administration had hoped the threat of withdrawal would force the Afghan government to address corruption and military weaknesses.

U.S. Special Forces troops in the Mohmand Valley. Photo: Michael M. Phillips/The Wall Street Journal

In recent months, the U.S. has boosted its forces in Afghanistan to 15,300 from 11,000—the largest American deployment there since 2014. At the peak of the U.S. commitment in 2011, 110,000 American troops served in the country.

Afghan commando units—which specialize in capturing or killing insurgent leaders during nighttime raids—are expected to double to 23,300 troops. From January through Oct. 4, the commandos and other elite Afghan army and police forces conducted 1,790 operations, about a third of them without assistance from the U.S. or its coalition partners, according to U.S. Army data.

Afghan commandos, backed by Green Berets and U.S. airstrikes, launched the offensive against Islamic State in Achin in February. The campaign drew attention in April when a U.S. plane dropped one of the largest bombs in the U.S. arsenal: the Massive Ordnance Air Blast, also known as the MOAB, or Mother of All Bombs. The bomb targeted Islamic State hide-outs in underground talc mines in Asad Khel village in the Mohmand Valley.

The village is back in government hands, about 900 yards behind the battlefront. Civilians have returned to their farms. Someone suspended a child’s swing from a tree with a view of the MOAB’s impact site: mud-brick buildings collapsed into mud-brick rubble.

In November, U.S. aircraft conducted strikes in Mohmand Valley, killing 19 Islamic State fighters, a special-operations officer said.

Up and down the front, Afghan and U.S. troops have seized buildings formerly occupied by Islamic State fighters. Militants left childlike drawings of AK-47 rifles and black Islamic State flags scrawled on walls.

“We’d like to move forward and clear this place,” said 1st Lt. Nematullah Moshtaq, who leads an Afghan commando platoon in Achin.

Americans have placed remote-controlled Claymore mines around their outposts to defend against militant counterattacks. When a mine is triggered, a wall of metal balls erupts at explosive velocity from one face of the rectangular device. The words “Front Toward Enemy” are embossed on the dangerous side.

A view of green areas cleared of Islamic State fighters and brown areas still within reach of militant gunners. Photo: no credit available

Deadly trap

The fighting on the floor of the Mohmand Valley is matched by a lethal game of capture the flag on the ridgelines above.

In September, Islamic State fighters wedged poles holding three of their signature black flags into the rocks on the north ridgeline, taunting the Afghan commandos and their U.S. allies in outposts below.

On Sept. 17, two Afghan border police climbed the ridge to take down the flags. A booby trap exploded, killing one officer and wounding the other.

U.S. forces shelled one flag with high-explosive mortars. It was windy, and 40 rounds missed the target. When the wind calmed, the mortarmen tried again, hitting the flag on their fourth try. The Americans destroyed another black flag with a bomb after failing to knock it down with grenades.

The Afghans sent a patrol up the mountainside to plant a red, green and black national flag. “The commandos, they get really serious about the flag,” a Special Forces platoon sergeant said.

As fall deepened, Afghan and U.S. troops spotted several buildings on fire a mile or so up Mohmand Valley. They speculated that Islamic State leaders might be torching their bases and fleeing to nearby valleys.

The Afghans and Americans plan to form local militias to help fend off Islamic State once the troops have forced insurgents away. A dozen village elders have agreed to provide men for the force, U.S. officials said.

It is a tactic the U.S. has tried before with limited success over the 16 years of the Afghan war. In some instances, U.S.-backed village police have preyed on residents, alienating those whose support the Afghan government needs.

U.S. commanders say they expect Afghan police and regular army forces to help secure liberated villages. The more territory seized from militants, one Special Forces team leader said, “the more hold forces we’ll need” to keep it.

Home again

The American team leader had served a tour a year ago, when the province was so thick with Islamic State fighters that his men couldn’t even reach the Mohmand Valley. Militants threatened to cut off Highway 7, an artery for commerce between Kabul and Peshawar, Pakistan. Farmers and their families fled.

Wahidullah crouched at a stream in the Pekha Valley. Photo: Michael M. Phillips/The Wall Street Journal

Now, on the green side of the front lines, many have returned to work the fields. Children wave at passing Afghan and American troops, and the sound of their laughter reaches the Special Forces outposts.

Awa Jan, a farmer with a white beard and a weathered face, said that he, his wife and their children fled Islamic State fighters. But with no means to support his family, he was forced to return to his village.

He recalled the time Islamic State fighters ordered residents to the bazaar, where the militants beheaded seven men. “They made us watch,” Mr. Jan said. “They said this would be our fate if we worked with the government.”

His family became a target because his son serves as an Afghan commando. “Islamic State told me I had to bring my son here, or they’d kill me,” Mr. Jan said, adding that he refused. Militants spared his life, he said, but expelled him from the village.

Mr. Jan is back farming his land—2 acres of wheat, tomatoes and rice. “They came in the name of Islam,” he said, “but actually they aren’t Muslims.”

Awa Jan returned home to farm in the Pekha Valley after the U.S. and Afghan allies drove out Islamic State fighters earlier this year. Photo: Michael M. Phillips/The Wall Street Journal

A teenager named Bakhtullah recalled the headless bodies in the back of a pickup truck that passed through his village. The boy’s father was killed serving in the army, he said. His mother and his two older brothers, he said, had no choice but to remain in the Pekha Valley during the Islamic State occupation.

Bakhtullah said militants beat people with sticks and radio antennas when they didn’t attend prayers at the mosque.

“They were like dogs,” Bakhtullah said. “Thank God they ran away”

Wahidullah, a man in his 30s, said he couldn’t afford to leave his land. “We have a farm here, our livelihood,” he said. Islamic State tax collectors seized half of every bag of wheat he grew, he said.

Another villager allegedly told Islamic State fighters that Wahidullah’s brother worked for the local police. Militants beat Wahidullah with a rubber hose, he said: “I wish all Islamic State were dead.”

—Jessica Donati contributed to this article.
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[*] posted on 13-12-2017 at 03:56 PM

An Afghan Army Aviator Describes Iran’s Threats — and How to Meet Them

By Abdul Rahman Rahmani

Aviator in the Afghan National Army

10:00 AM ET

Rahmat Gul/AP

Beyond its support for the Taliban, Tehran is exploiting refugee flows and cultural ties between the countries.

Iran’s immediate military threat to Afghanistan is its support for the Taliban. But Tehran is also pulling three levers to prevent Afghans from unifying against its influence: recruiting Afghan refugees into Iranian forces; the interconnected economies along the countries’ border, and an effort to reshape Afghan education and culture. As they strengthen their security forces, Kabul and its people must stiffen their own cultural institutions, or lose a generation and possibly their country to Tehran’s sway.

In mid-November, a top Afghan official shocked his country, and international observers, by thanking Iranian-backed Afghan fighters for battling ISIS in Syria. In doing so, Mohammad Mohaqiq, deputy to Afghan chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, appeared to confirm what Iran had consistently denied doing: recruiting Shiite men from around the region to fight in Syria. Many of the recruits were among the 3 million Afghans who have fled to Iran to find work or respite from the war. What they got instead was a hard sell from recruiters from the Revolutionary Guards’ Fatemiyoun Division: “You came from Afghanistan to work and to make money. We will give you two options: Go to Syria, and we will pay you money, or go back to your country.”

Now Iran has redeployed some of these Afghan fighters to their home country, where they are fighting ISIS forces. When Mirza-Olang, a valley in the Sar-E-Pul province, was seized by anti-government forces in October, Iranian media initially tried to place blame solely on ISIS. But after the Afghan media reported that the attack was supported by Taliban — and that Iran had sent some Fatemiyoun Division fighters to help — Iranian media quickly acknowledged that it had been a joint Taliban-ISIS operation. This use of Shiite Afghans in the Fatemiyoun Division against the Sunni Afghans of ISIS could spark a religious war, the bloodiest that Afghanistan has ever seen.

A second key lever is the area around the countries’ 987-kilometer shared border, the area of Afghanistan most heavily influenced by Iran. In this area, especially in the Herat and Zabul provinces, people speak Persian with a heavy Iranian accent, they use Iranian money instead of Afghani in everyday trading, and they benefit from drug smuggling into Iran by bribing Iranian border police.

Kabul must take a strong stand against Iran’s cultural influence by establishing an institution to provide literature, printing press, and free media that should oppose Iranian cultural influence.

Moreover, Tehran has been blocking Afghan proposals to develop much-needed hydroelectric generating plants on two rivers that flow into Iran: the Hirmand, which brings 26 cubic meters of water per second; and the Harirod, with more than half a cubic meter per second. (Indeed, the struggle to control water resources may become a flashpoint between the countries. Kabul recently signed an agreement with India to re-build Salma Dam in Herat province with the aim of generating 42 megawatts. During the ceremony, Afghanistan’s President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani said that eventually Afghanistan will cease to allow water to flow to neighboring counties, including Iran. Iran’s President Rohani promptly responded that this move would “affect air pollution in Iran and will cause a regional crisis,” while one Iranian government-funded website concluded, “It will shut down life in half of eastern Iran, will cause massive migration, and most dangerously will eventfully lead Iran into a civil war.”)

But the most dire long-term threat to Afghanistan is Iran’s effort to riddle Afghan society with Iranian culture, propaganda, and organizations that will shape the attitudes and beliefs of the next generation of Afghans. In recent years, Iran has established schools, bookstores, and universities.

For example, there are 590 students studying at Azad University, an Iranian private university in Afghanistan. As well, Iran offers hundreds of bachelors, masters, and PhD scholarships to Afghan students every year. Most significantly, Iran provides great quantities of literature to Afghan private and public schools and universities — most of it written in Persian.

By providing free cultural exchange visas, Iran allows Afghan poets and writers to visit Iran and exchange cultural thoughts.

Already, many intellectuals and some educated people quote Iranian authors for ostentation and pomposity. As philosopher Paulo Freire said, “For cultural invasion to succeed, it is essential that those invaded become convinced of their intrinsic inferiority.” Today or tomorrow, Afghans will be convinced that they cannot continue their educational system without Iran’s literature.

To fight back, the Afghan government must do several things. It must woo back the millions of refugees in Iran by providing shelter, jobs, and basic needs. It must fight Tehran’s influence in the border region by banning the use of Iranian currency and boosting border patrols to stop drug trafficking. The Afghan government must take a strong stand against Iran’s cultural influence by establishing an institution to provide literature, printing press, and free media that should oppose Iranian cultural influence. And finally, it must push back against citizens who openly support Iran’s policies in Afghanistan, using the provision of the Afghan constitution that allows them to be named as national traitors.
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