The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan delivered an upbeat assessment of the war effort Tuesday, calling President Trump’s new strategy a “game changer” that has put the Afghan government forces “on a path to a win.”
Army Gen. John Nicholson cited the end of any set withdrawal date, the unleashing of American airpower, the increasing capabilities of the Afghan military and the decreasing popularity of the Taliban as reasons for his optimism after 16 years of fighting.
The Trump policy “is really fundamentally different,” Nicholson told Pentagon reporters in a video briefing piped in from Afghanistan. “That’s why I express confidence that we are on our way to win.”
Under new authorities granted by Trump, Nicholson has been able to triple the number of bombs dropped on Taliban, al Qaeda, and Islamic State targets: 3,554 in the first 10 months of this year, compared to 1,337 in all of 2016, according to figures released by the U.S. Air Forces Central Command.
That has allowed Nicholson to go after the Taliban’s primary source of funding, which is its heroin traffic from Afghanistan’s bumper crop of opium poppies.
A recent three-day air and ground campaign “removed between $7 million and $10 million of revenue from the Taliban's pocketbook,” Nicholson said. “These strikes were just the first step in attacking the Taliban's financial engine, and they will continue.”
The U.S. approach in Afghanistan mirrors the successful strategy that defeated the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria: combining U.S. airpower, logistics and intelligence support to highly motivated forces on the ground.
But the goal is not to destroy the Taliban, but to demoralize them, so they will be forced to reconcile in a peace process.
In the case of Afghanistan, the U.S. is putting a lot of hopes in the performance of the highly-trained Afghan special forces units, which have never lost on the battlefield.
In the last month, the U.S. has trained 1,700 of the elite commandos, along with six new pilots to fly the first of what will be 150 UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters to be delivered to the Afghan air force over the next two years.
Nicholson said one of the most important changes was made by President Ashraf Ghani in May, when he fired five of his six corps commanders and named a new chief of general staff and defense minister.
“The Afghan commanders who make up that corps have never lost a battle against the Taliban and they never will. They are the most feared and respected force in Afghanistan today and they're the best special operations force in the region.”
Since their appointment, Nicholson says, Afghan National Defense and Security Forces have been on the offensive.
“These new leaders led offensive operations, and many times throughout the year we held offensive operations in all six corps areas. Absolutely new in the last three years; never happened before,” Nicholson said.
“These changes in leadership, strengthened and supported by the renewed international will and the U.S. policy announcement, have shifted the momentum in their favor.”
As Nicholson looks ahead to 2018, he says he believes the U.S. and its Afghan partners “have turned the corner” and “the momentum is now with the Afghan Security Forces.”
“The Taliban cannot win in the face of the pressures that I outlined,” Nicholson said. “Their choices are to reconcile, live in irrelevance, or die.”