Despite his rhetoric on the campaign trail, President Donald Trump has reaffirmed the US commitment to Afghanistan, promising military commanders they will have the resources and support they need “to fight and to win”.
With few attractive strategic options on the table, there is little surprise that the man who loves winning so much has chosen to stay the course, rather than withdraw US troops and be the president that ceded Afghanistan to the Taliban.
As Gen John W. Nicholson, the Commander of US Forces – Afghanistan, told the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) in February, neither the Taliban nor the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) is currently capable of “fundamentally altering the operational environment”.
This leaves a situation where the government in Kabul currently claims control over roughly two thirds of the population, the Taliban is in control of some ten percent of the country, and the rest remains contested.
As with all previous stages of the Afghan conflict since 2001, SOF remain a critical element of any successful strategy, particularly given that of the 98 US-designated terrorist organizations globally, 20 are located in the Afghanistan/ Pakistan region.
As part of its counter-terrorism (CT) mission, US SOF operators have become extremely efficient over the past decade at “kicking in doors” in the hunt for Al-Qaeda leaders, facilitators and key associates.
Trump’s comments suggest this effort will only widen under the new administration. The trap the Pentagon must now avoid is any renewed emphasis on the CT effort to the detriment of ANDSF capability development under the training, advising, and assistance (TAA) mission.
In his evidence to the SASC, Nicholson noted that the “professionalism and competence” of the Afghan National Army Special Operations Command was one of the best examples of success of the TAA effort in 2016.
The 17,000 special operators conducted 70% of ANA offensive operations last year, and their proficiency is “directly attributable” to their long-standing partnerships with US and coalition advisors.
However, given Western reliance on close air support and aerial mobility, these areas remain a critical indigenous capability gap that needs attention.
The Afghan Special Mission Wing is fully night vision goggle-qualified, allowing it to conduct night-time operations anywhere in the country. But the larger Afghan Air Force (AAF) remains in “dire condition” due to an extremely high operational tempo and lack of aircraft.
In 2016, the AAF added 18 MD 530 attack/scout helicopters and eight A-29 Super Tucano attack aircraft, with the first A-29 strike mission flown on April 14, 2016. Some 120 Afghan tactical air controllers had also been added to help improve the combat capability of the ANDSF.
The poor quality of ANDSF leadership and the persistence of corruption within the ranks have shown the need for reforms to the appointment systems and effective leader development programs. Here, Afghan Special Forces have also led the way, demonstrating it is possible to shape effective leaders from the country’s sizable youth population.
Trump’s speech did hit the right notes in many areas, including highlighting the destabilizing role played by Pakistan and the fact that military power alone will not bring peace to Afghanistan, as well as heralding a shift from a time-based approach to one reflecting conditions on the ground.
But funding must now be properly allocated to reflect one truism of Trump’s address – the stronger the Afghan security forces become, the less the US will have to do there.