The South Asia strategy in Afghanistan has spawned intensified dialogue and a drop in Taliban violence, Army Gen. John W. Nicholson, commander of NATO’s Resolute Support mission and U.S. Forces – Afghanistan, told reporters today.
Speaking to Pentagon media via teleconference from Kabul, Afghanistan, the commander said the goal of the South Asia strategy is reconciliation, and Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani has called it a game changer.
Six months into the strategy, Nicholson said, “we had the elements of a peace proposal outlined by the Taliban in an open letter to America and a formal peace offer by President Ghani,” followed by other communication channels.
Between February, when the peace offers were made, and the end of April, the levels of enemy-initiated violence dropped to 30 percent below the five-year average, Nicholson said.
But on April 25, the Taliban announced their offensive and since then, the violence has increased, but still stands at a level that’s 10 percent to 20 percent below the five-year average, he said.
“I call this talking and fighting,” Nicholson said. “And, as [Defense Secretary James N. Mattis] has said, ‘violence and progress can coexist,’ and that's what we're seeing.”
The South Asia policy brought additional firepower and authorities, he said, noting that the Taliban have sought to avoid attacks by air, and have targeted more remote district centers.
During the period of violence, the Afghan National Defense and security forces defeated more than 80 percent of the enemy attacks on district centers, meaning the Taliban failed to achieve their target goals, the general noted.
The 20 percent of the attacks in which the Taliban were successful in taking five district centers have been retaken by Afghan forces, the commander said, adding some were retaken in anywhere from hours to 10 days.
Driving the Enemy From Farah
“The one exception to a remote district center being attacked [by the Taliban] was the city of Farah. Within 24 hours of the attack, these Afghan forces, supported by the Afghan air force, and enabled by the United States, drove the enemy out of the city and into surrounding districts, where they pursued them for a week,” Nicholson said.
He added, “During this pursuit, a number of these Taliban leaders and fighters returned to Helmand, and through some great intelligence work by our Marines, … they tracked 50 of them to a meeting in Musa Qala and struck them with rockets, killing dozens of the enemy leaders.”
Another example of a failed enemy attack took place today, the general said.
Eight terrorists in a captured Humvee attempted to penetrate the ministry of interior headquarters in downtown Kabul, he said.
“They were stopped, and in a sharp firefight with special police, all of the enemy were killed, with the exception of one, who was captured. We did lose one friendly casualty and had a few wounded, but the enemy attack failed and never was able to penetrate MOI headquarters,” Nicholson said.
“[These] are just a few examples of the improvements we've seen in the [Afghan forces] fighting abilities, which … is the focus of our investment and one of the key parts of the South Asia strategy -- defeating 80 percent of enemy attacks, retaking any fallen district centers, successfully defending Farah, pursuing and killing the attackers, defeating terrorist attacks,” the general said.
Counterterrorism is the other key mission in Afghanistan, and the top two targets remain the Islamic State-Khorasan Province and al-Qaida, the commander said, noting that while the Islamic State aspires to spread around the country, it is geographically limited to Jowzjan, Nangarhar and Kunar.
“Our [counterterrorism] team recently killed the leader of the Jowzjan enclave, Qari Hekmatullah, and many of his fighters, which caused many of them to fade away or to flip sides to the Taliban, severely disrupted,” Nicholson said.
“We are maintaining the pressure on that particular enclave to defeat this group, and we're also maintaining pressure on the group in Nangarhar, with what is called Operation Hamza,” he said, “which has been going on for the past year and steadily reducing their space and inflicting casualties.”
(Follow Terri Moon Cronk @MoonCronkDoD)