US Seeks to Mitigate Risk, Learn Ground Truth in Afghanistan

Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, rides aboard a CH-47 Chinook in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sept. 7, 2018.

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Kabul, Afghanistan – Taliban reconciliation with the Afghan government is at the core of the peace program in Afghanistan, but it will be a difficult path to tread, the spokesman for NATO’s Resolute Support mission and the US Operation Freedom’s Sentinel said on Friday (Sept. 7).

Army Lt. Col. Martin O’Donnell said new commander Army Gen. Austin Scott Miller is traveling the country speaking to Afghan and coalition forces to get a sense of what is happening on the ground now. Defense Secretary James N. Mattis and Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made a previously unannounced visit to Afghanistan yesterday.

Miller, who has a special operations forces background, has served in Afghanistan many times, and is already familiar with the terrain and the people of the nation. Still, O’Donnell said, the general needs to get the ground truth and is talking to service members about managing risk.

“It is a combat zone,” the colonel said. “We will never remove risk from the equation. But we’ve got to figure out ways to deal with it, and then … balance risk with reward.”

Interacting With Afghan Forces

Miller also is stressing the need for coalition service members to interact with the Afghans, who are carrying the main burden of the war. “We’re in Afghanistan,” he said. “If we’re not speaking with an Afghan, something’s probably wrong — we’re not getting the complete perspective.”

The general is working to get views from all parts of his command. Leaders often have a different perspective than the service member on the ground, O’Donnell noted, and Miller wants to ensure he is getting the straight story. Different parts of Afghanistan offer different challenges. Tactics that work in the desert south, may not work in the mountainous east.

One tool Miller can use is the Army’s 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade. While the brigade’s headquarters is in Advisor Platform Lightning, its subordinate units are advising, training and assisting Afghan units all over the country. Afghanistan is a complicated country and the subordinate units can tailor their assistance to the Afghan unit they serve with. “The needs of one unit may not be the needs of another,” O’Donnell said. “What we’ve seen is there’s some [units] … that are more competent than others,” he said. The brigade’s units will go where the need is the greatest, he added, and they are able to reach down to the kandak level – the Afghan equivalent of a battalion – to perform their mission.

Another effect of the unit is that American service members all around the country are able to report up the chain about the situation on the ground.

From a terrorist perspective, the situation on the ground is complicated. The Taliban are Afghans who have taken up arms, and while they are an enemy force, there is the idea that they can be brought back to civil society.

“The enemy are the terrorists that pose a threat not only to the United States, but to the 40 contributing nations to the NATO mission here,” O’Donnell said.

Terrorist Organizations

The real threat is the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria- Khorasan, al-Qaida and at least 20 other terrorist organizations that will never compromise with any government, anywhere. The area between Afghanistan and Pakistan has the greatest concentration of terrorist organizations in the world, O’Donnell said.

Recent Afghan and counterterrorism operations in Nangarhar province resulted in the ISIS-K self-declared caliphate being destroyed. “But they will try to establish it elsewhere,” the colonel said. “We’ve got to apply that constant pressure to them to not let that happen.”

If the group succeeds in worming its way into another area, it can plot attacks against NATO allies and partners.

ISIS-K is a difficult sell for Afghans, O’Donnell said. “We’ve seen ISIS-K not able to grow its ranks,” he added, “but we’ve seen them able to replenish … its ranks.”

One of the ways groups can replenish their ranks is by changing allegiance to ISIS. The porous Afghan border also means that a small number of foreign terrorists have joined the group inside Afghanistan. The main branch of ISIS in Iraq and Syria has been attacked mercilessly. Some the ISIS terrorists who escaped the Syrian or Iraqi death traps have made their way to Afghanistan, but officials haven’t seen a massive influx, O’Donnell said, adding that foreign fighters are not the same problem they were in Iraq and Syria. The majority of the counterterrorism mission is aimed at ISIS-K or al-Qaida, he said.

There is no purely military solution to the problems of Afghanistan, O’Donnell said. The military is one aspect, and diplomacy, politics and economic progress still must catch up.

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