Afghan forces were put to the test and prevailed during the 2016 fighting season, Army Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the commander of the Resolute Support mission and U.S. Forces Afghanistan, said here today.
Speaking at the Pentagon, Nicholson told reporters the Afghan forces went into 2016 with a campaign plan in hand, compared to the year before when they reacted to enemy activity.
The Afghans developed a sustainable security strategy, the general said, and used “a fight-hold-disrupt strategy, so it identified areas of the population that they would hold, areas that they would fight for, and then other areas where they would do an economy of force and merely disrupt the enemy.”
“This ability to deal with simultaneous crises … is a sign of an army that's growing in capability, [and] that's maturing in terms of its ability to handle simultaneity and complexity on the battlefield,” he said.
“When I look at my security assessment at the end of 2016 going forward,” the general said, “I believe that what we're seeing right now is what I would call an equilibrium … that's in favor of the [Afghan] government.”
Growth of Capability
The growth and progress made by Afghan forces in the past year is also due to the 17,000-member special operations force, which operates independently of the U.S. military 80 percent of the time, and the rapidly growing capability of the Afghan air force, Nicholson said.
“They are not only adding attack aircraft,” he said of the Afghan forces, “They’re adding the capability to control those aircraft on the ground.”
Nearly 20 aircrews have been added to the Afghan air force complement since their first A-29 Super Tucano strike combat mission in April, Nicholson said, adding, “The [Afghan] air force is going to continue to grow over the next few years and into the future.”
Since the start of the Taliban's campaign in April, Afghan forces have prevented them from accomplishing their strategic objectives, he said.
“They've been unable to mass because of air power, both Afghan and coalition air power,” Nicholson said, “and they resorted to small-scale attacks on checkpoints around cities in attempts to isolate the cities and create panic.”
Challenges In 2017
Looking to challenges in 2017, leadership and corruption are two factors that need improvement, the general said. Both factors have led to poor soldier sustainment in the field, he said, and “because of some ineffectiveness and corruption in the supply system, young soldiers out on outpost don't always get the ammunition, water [or] food they need in order to conduct the fight.”
Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani is very serious about addressing those issues, the general said.
“As we go into this winter campaign,” he said, “the Afghan police and army will focus on replacing ineffective or corrupt leaders. President Ghani and his administration are dedicated to this, and they are acting quickly and systematically to make necessary leadership changes.”
Nicholson also cited Afghan government stability as a concern, going into 2017.
“One possible risk of Afghan political instability is a fracture, but we have not seen this happen within the security forces,” he said.
The general said there’s also concern about the malign influence of external actors, particularly Pakistan, Russia and Iran. “And we're concerned about the external enablement of the insurgent or terrorist groups inside Afghanistan, in particular where they enjoy sanctuary or support from outside governments,” Nicholson added.
The convergence of terrorist groups is also a continuing issue, he said.
“[With] 13 [terror groups] in Afghanistan and seven in Pakistan, the morphing of these groups into more virulent strains or the fact that sometimes they cooperate … the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts,” Nicholson said, adding the groups participate from complementary alliances, capabilities and networks, which requires continuous pressure to prevent them from becoming “something worse.”
Security Forces, Coalition Offer Protection
Capable Afghan forces and a continued coalition presence will help protect the U.S. homeland and its allies from terrorist attacks and other disruptions from the region, he said, adding that a secure Afghanistan with regional and international development efforts helps ensure regional stability.
“We are stabilizing what was once a deteriorating situation and have the international support to progress even further in the coming years,” Nicholson said. “The Afghan leadership remains focused on the future as the men and women of the security forces fight daily for a safe and stable Afghanistan.”
And the Afghans’ resolve is bolstered by continued U.S. commitment, he added.
“Our dedication to them sends a clear message to the enemies of peace and stability in Afghanistan and the world that [the terrorists] will not win,” the commander said. “The people of Afghanistan know we are with them to help them realize their future.”
(Follow Terri Moon Cronk on Twitter: @MoonCronkDoD)