The new U.S. strategy for the war in Afghanistan unveiled last month by President Donald Trump is already showing results insisted senior military officials who met with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in Afghanistan this week.
General John Nicholson, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, told reporters traveling with Mattis that Trump’s conditions-based approach to the conflict has improved troop morale, stunted Taliban gains, and stunned insurgents.
“We’re seeing an effect amongst the Taliban leadership,” Nicholson said. “For years they thought we were leaving; now with the renewed commitment at Warsaw, (and) with the new U.S. policy, they realize we’re not leaving, so this has put them in disarray.”
Stalemate for now
But speaking on background, U.S. officials were more restrained in their assessment about the 16-year-old battle.
“We still put the conflict within the bounds of a stalemate, where neither side has the capability right now to have a decisive victory in the campaign,” a U.S. military official acknowledged.
According to the latest U.S. assessment, 64 percent of the Afghan population lives in territory controlled or influenced by the Afghan government, with the rest either contested or under Taliban control.
But U.S. officials are hopeful that will change soon.
The coalition says it has halted Taliban advances, especially in provincial capitals and major population centers. And coalition forces are “definitely on track” to achieve Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s goal of having 80 percent of the population under government control by 2020, says a U.S. military official.
U.S. officials also point to what they say is the Afghan military’s increased capabilities. Next week the inaugural class of Afghan pilots will begin learning to fly the first of around 160 Black Hawk helicopters the U.S. is giving to Afghanistan as part of a new seven-year effort to modernize the country’s air force.
How to define success?
Afghan officials welcome the new U.S. approach, saying it provides more certainty and won’t allow the Taliban to wait out timelines for troop withdrawal.
But the Trump administration hasn’t laid out what metrics it will use to define success in Afghanistan. And many of the factors Trump has mentioned — crushing the terrorists or denying safe haven to militants, for example — are not easily measurable, leading some to worry about a perpetual war.
During Mattis’ visit to Kabul, he suggested coalition forces will regularly evaluate the more than 200 benchmarks that President Ghani has set in conjunction with Washington.
“Who initiates the most fights with the enemy? How are we doing on selection of junior officers from NCO ranks? How are we doing on counter-corruption? All of this comes together in an integrated, whole of government, whole of coalition campaign,” Mattis said.
“And the ongoing evaluation will be transparent,” he added. “In other words, we will share all of our data, we will review it together and make adaptations as needed.”
Two easily quantifiable factors are bombs and troops, and the U.S. is sending more of both to Afghanistan.
The U.S. last month dropped more bombs (503) on Afghanistan than any single month since 2012, according to military figures. Mattis recently announced the U.S. would send another 3,000 U.S. forces to Afghanistan, bringing the total number in the country to around 14,000.
The new U.S. plan also involves pressuring Pakistan to end its support for Afghan militant groups, and envisions India playing a bigger role in helping bring stability and prosperity.
But for all the ways that Trump’s Afghanistan strategy allegedly differs from that of former President Barack Obama, many former Obama officials praised the policy’s continuity.
“I was pleasantly surprised,” said Shamila Chaudhary, who worked on Afghanistan policy in Obama’s White House. “I thought it was a very pro-establishment approach they took. They played it very safe.”
Speaking on background, a U.S. military official acknowledged that under Trump’s new plan “the authorities to conduct the campaign are broadly the same” as under the previous administration.
But U.S. officials are confident their new strategy is different enough to break the stalemate and will eventually force the Taliban to the negotiating table.
What isn’t clear is how long it will take.
As Mattis arrived in the Afghan capital, the Taliban provided a grim reminder of the path ahead, sending a flurry of rockets toward the Kabul international airport. Though Mattis had departed the area hours earlier, the insurgents described the attack as an assassination attempt, drawing headlines that dominated news coverage of the secretary’s visit.
Insurgents also killed at least 12 Afghan security forces in a suicide attack in Kandahar late Wednesday, hours before Mattis landed in the western city to meet with coalition officials.
Despite the setbacks, Mattis says he is confident of success.
“War is principally a matter of will,” he said, standing alongside President Ghani and NATO Secretary-General Stoltenberg. “And we’ve made clear we have the will to stand together.”