Officials Note Progress in Afghanistan, Difficulty for Taliban

Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, left, walks with Army Gen. John W. Nicholson, commander of the Resolute Support mission and US Forces Afghanistan, before meeting with Afghan senior government and military leaders in Kabul, Afghanistan, March 20, 2018

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Mazar E-Sharif, Afghanistan – Noting “breathtaking” progress the Afghan government and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani have made in Afghanistan, a senior officer in the Resolute Support mission said there is never going to be a better time for the Taliban to start talking with the Afghan government about peace.

Army Brig. Gen Michael R. Fenzel, the chief of plans for the Resolute Support mission here, said Afghan security forces are a force in being. They do have problems, but they are being addressed, he said. The Afghans’ capabilities today are something he could only imagine during earlier deployments to the country, he added.

It goes beyond purely military aspects, Fenzel said, as the Afghan government is moving against corruption and nepotism and the government is working to replace older, less professional military officers with better-trained and younger ones.

Ghani’s security roadmap is sound, the general said, and the Afghan president is following the NATOalliance’s Joint Statement of Requirements – a list of tasks he must accomplish to keep the international community involved.

South Asia Strategy

President Donald J. Trump’s South Asia Strategy unveiled in August also played a large part, the general said, as America’s commitment to the Afghan theater is not time constrained now, and more advisors working at different levels with increased permissions.

“I won’t purport to speak for the Taliban, but I have to imagine that their big plans to march on Kabul as we left, and now they see us with no time line, additional commitments, overwhelming commitment of enablers that comes with this shift of the main effort from Iraq and Syria to Afghanistan, and they are seeing it on the ground. … It’s got to be demoralizing from the Taliban’s perpsective,” Fenzel said in an interview with reporters traveling with Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Some 88 percent of the Afghan population does not support the Taliban, Fenzel said. “You look where they are now as we enter this fighting season,” he said. “We are more capable as an advisory force than we’ve ever been before, and the Afghan fighting forces are more effective than they have ever been before.

“I have to wonder if they don’t say to themselves, ‘Perhaps now is as good as it is going to get for reconciliation,’” he continued. “That is our end state: getting to the negotiating table so we can realize peace.”

Ghani is open to negotiations, but he, the Afghan forces and the coalition will continue pressure against the Taliban to help them make the right decision for the country.

Army Maj. Gen. Christopher F. Bentley, senior advisor to the Ministry of Defense at US Forces Afghanistan, has eight tours in Afghanistan, beginning in 2001. This is Afghanistan’s struggle, he said, noting that Ghani and his national unity government have defined the roadmap for the country. Though he and Army Gen. John M. Nicholson, the commander of the Resolute Support mission and of US forces in Afghanistan helped to define the scope, he emphasized that success is an Afghan goal.

Bentley said the South Asia Strategy has caused many changes in Afghanistan. The biggest effect of the announcement was the realization among government leaders and the Afghan population that “America’s not leaving,” he said.

That changed the calculus in the country, he added, with government leaders and forces taking new heart and the Taliban realizing they could not just “wait out” the NATO mission. Taliban leaders realized that “they need to get in the arena or get left behind,” Bentley said.

Security in Kabul is High Priority

Security in Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul is front and center this year, Bentley said, as the nation also readies for elections. Whenever the election is, he added, the security situation will be such that it can happen.

Kabul is a growing challenge. In 2001, its population was around 1.2 million. It is now more than 5 million. The capital is the economic heartbeat of the country, and Afghan forces must provide for the safety of the citizens. “The security piece has been redefined over the last 90 days to better incorporate a holistic national defense infrastructure,” Bentley said.

Recent attacks in Kabul – as horrific as they are – are not military, he noted — they are terrorism, pure and simple. The Taliban cannot challenge Afghan forces in pitched battles, he said, and certainly cannot do so in Kabul. That is why they have reverted to attacks on civilian, soft targets, he explained.

Still, he added, these attacks draw the attention of the world.

“Every event that happens in Kabul, whether we define it as tactical or not, has a strategic implication,” he said. “We must allow for a secure Kabul that allows for the social and economic growth of its citizens.”

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