US, Nato still trying to map out Afghanistan strategy

Published September 18, 2017
US Marines attempt to sight in a .50 calibre rifle in Helmand province, Afghanistan. The 16-year conflict has resulted in the deaths of 2,403 Americans.—The Washington Post
US Marines attempt to sight in a .50 calibre rifle in Helmand province, Afghanistan. The 16-year conflict has resulted in the deaths of 2,403 Americans.—The Washington Post

TIRANA (Albania): Even though President Donald Trump announced his strategy for the war in Afghanistan in August, the Pentagon and Nato are still trying to map their way forward in the nearly 16-year-old conflict, according to US officials.

The delay is the byproduct of the US commander’s vision for the war and the alliance’s ability to provide the troops required to make it a reality, according to a US official who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing deliberations.

In recent weeks, the United States deployed additional forces into Afghanistan — a move that coincided with the announcement of Trump’s strategy — to help bolster Afghan forces during the final months of this year’s fighting season. The immediate surge was a short-term solution, requested by battlefield commanders, but the Pentagon is still assessing how US troops will be deployed in the country in 2018, according to a US official in Afghanistan.

Speaking to a small group of reporters, General Curtis Scaparrotti, the head of the US European Command and Supreme Allied Commander of Europe, said that he expects to have a “full picture” on Nato commitments by October.

“There is still a lack of clarity which positions, which functions, to focus their contributions,” said Czech General Petr Pavel, chairman of the Nato Military Committee. Speaking at a news conference here, Pavel added that the recently announced US strategy provides a clearer picture of the way forward, but the alliance won’t make final troop decisions until another conference in October.

With the military mission in Afghanistan primarily focused on training the Afghan military, the United States wants its Nato allies to take up the bulk of that role, freeing up US forces to push closer to the front.

The US military in Afghanistan has the infrastructure, including fire support and medical evacuation capabilities, to move its troops forward, to not only train and advise but also assist — through air strikes and artillery — their struggling Afghan counterparts, the official said.

The Pentagon’s recent reluctance to discuss additional troop numbers is likely linked with the fact that Nato has yet to say if it will completely agree to General John Nicholson’s requests.

US officials, however, have repeatedly said that enough troops will deploy to Afghanistan in the coming months to bring the total number of US troops in the country to around 14,000. Aside from the additional troops, the increase will likely bring more air support and artillery units to help push back the Taliban and protect US forces on the ground.

In addition to advising the Afghan military, US forces also conduct counterterrorism operations against groups such as the militant Islamic State group and Al Qaeda. Ten US troops have been killed by hostile fire in Afghanistan in 2017, the majority of whom were fighting IS militants in the country’s east. On Friday, a Romanian soldier was killed in a suicide bombing in Kandahar. More than 2,000 Americans have died since the United States invaded in 2001, though Afghan civilians have borne the brunt of the violence, with more than 1,500 killed this year alone, according to the United Nations.

—By arrangement with The Washington Post

Published in Dawn, September 18th, 2017

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