Commander: US support of Afghans could be game-changer

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President Barack Obama's decision to allow more aggressive U.S. military action in support of Afghan combat operations against the Taliban could have a game-changing effect on the long war, Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said Saturday.

After prohibiting U.S. forces from targeting the Taliban except in limited circumstances beginning in 2015, Obama shifted course last month and said Nicholson could use U.S. airpower and other military assets against the Taliban if it supported offensive Afghan action as part of a strategic campaign plan.

What that amounts to, Nicholson said in an Associated Press interview at his military headquarters in Kabul, is encouragement for the Afghans to stay on the offense.

"Armies win on the offense," he said, alluding to longstanding U.S. concerns that Afghan commanders have been too passive, defensive and lacking in aggressive strategies for pursing the Taliban once the militants begin to lose ground.

"The ability to help the Afghan security forces when they are on the offense is really where we want to be, because when they have the initiative, when they are on the offense, when they are taking the fight to the enemy, that's how they're going to be successful," Nicholson said.

Nicholson said that the attempted coup in Turkey had no impact on the U.S.-led campaign to support Afghanistan in its war against the Taliban.

He said the international coalition he leads includes more than 500 Turkish soldiers and he is pleased with what he called the professionalism of senior Turkish military officers who supported the government against the coup leaders. He said he believes the Turkish government is "going to be fine."

Obama officially ended the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan in December 2014. He had intended to scale back the military presence to leave only a contingent at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, but he recently announced that 8,400 U.S. troops would remain when he leaves office in January. There currently are about 9,800 U.S. troops in the country.

Nicholson said he expects in coming weeks to make increasing use of his wider latitude to support offensive Afghan operations, including as the Afghan security forces turn their attention this month to fighting the Taliban in the east of the country.

The general said this could include not only more use of U.S. combat airpower but also U.S. reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft and resupply planes. Other officials have said it may include the use of U.S. air controllers on the ground to help pinpoint targets for airstrikes against the Taliban.

Ultimately, Nicholson said, this could generate enough Afghan offensive momentum to break the Taliban's belief that they can prevail and compel them to reconcile with Kabul. It's also true that U.S. commanders in Afghanistan have been asserting for many years that enough military pressure can be put on the Taliban to bring them to the negotiating table, but that has never happened. As recently as 2011 the U.S. had 100,000 troops in Afghanistan.

Also to be overcome is an escalating scale of battlefield casualties suffered by the Afghans. Nicholson said they had about 20,000 casualties last year, which others have said included 5,000-plus killed in action and 14,000-plus wounded. He said casualties in 2016 are running about 20 percent higher than last year.

Those losses, combined with other forms of attrition such as soldiers going AWOL or deserting, have kept the Afghan army under strength for an extended period. Command Sgt. Major Michael S. Clements, the senior enlisted adviser to the Afghan Defense and Interior ministries, said in a separate interview that the Army, which is supposed to have 195,000 soldiers, is listed by the government at about 175,000.

"We suspect they're not as high as that," said Maj. Gen. Richard G. Kaiser, commander of the U.S.-led training mission, known as Combined Security Transition Command Afghanistan. He was referring to suspicions that a significant number of soldiers and police officers who are listed on the rolls are actually phantoms; they are kept on the rolls so their salaries can be collected by corrupt commanders.

A Pentagon report to Congress in June said opinion surveys show Afghans feel less secure than at any recent time. "Perceptions of security remain near all-time lows," the report said. Forty-two percent polled in March said they believe security is worse than during the time of the Taliban, which ruled the country from 1996 to 2001.

Nicholson, the top overall U.S. commander in Kabul, said he sees many reasons for optimism in light of what he calls a series of events that have boosted the morale of the Afghan military. Among those is the U.S. killing of the Taliban's leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor. He was killed in a drone strike in in Pakistan in May.

He said it "had a more profound impact than even we estimated that it would."

"It really demonstrated our commitment to them (the Afghans) and to strike at the enemy — something we had not done previously, against enemy leadership in Pakistan," he said.