WASHINGTON: US Secretary of Defence James Mattis has said that in the new year the Pentagon will induct more advisers into Afghan army, as Afghan forces with American mentors tend to win battles.

“We’re going to be putting more American forces, advisers, in the more conventional force in the Afghan army. As you know, they have not had them, and they were not ready to fight in the way we want them to,” Secretary Mattis said at a New Year weekend news briefing.

Explaining why the Afghan army needs more time to win against the Taliban militants, the US defence chief said: “As you put together an army that’s going to try to restore some degree of normalcy and protect people … it takes time to do it.”

Mr Mattis said that attaching more American advisers would also increase the number of Afghan troops in the battlefield, “the regular forces, the ones that have not had mentors before”.

The attachments, he added, also improved their performance in the battle.

“The Afghan Special Forces that have had mentors basically always win, when they’re in the fights. They always win, to the point they’ve been probably, again, in that case, overused. So our point is to make their general purpose force more capable,” he said.

Defence Secretary James Mattis says it will take time for the Afghan army to restore normalcy

The secretary’s statement highlights a key point in the new US strategy for Afghanistan that President Donald Trump announced in his address to American troops at Ft. Myer, Virginia on Aug 21. He said the US was now shifting to a conditions-based strategy, “not arbitrary timetables” and was giving more powers to American troops in Afghanistan to engage the enemy. Under the new strategy, the administration also pledged 3,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, bringing the total number of US forces in Afghanistan to 14,000 — still a far cry from the nearly 100,000 troops that were there at the height of the war.

But President Trump plans to meet this shortcoming by lifting the restrictions placed by the Obama administration on US commanders on the ground. They are no longer restricted to defending themselves against enemy attacks or to helping Afghan forces only when they are under attack. Now, they are also launching pre-emptive attacks and are targeting strategically important locations as well.

Pentagon officials said that the new strategy was already helping them in improving their coordination with Afghan troops. They said that the next year, US advisers would once again begin assisting Afghan forces at battalion level, instead of at the higher corps level.

They will also call in more airstrikes than they have done since August, when the new strategy was announced. The airstrikes can target key sources of the Taliban’s revenue as well.

In line with the new policy, US airstrikes targeted the Taliban’s narcotics production facilities in November, eliminating 25 of the narcotics processing labs. The Pentagon said the airstrikes cost the Taliban about $16 million in lost revenue.

But defence analysts, speaking to various US media outlets, warned that this would also “put Americans in greater risk as they inch closer to the frontlines.”

In its October quarterly report, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) identified another source of major trouble for both US and Afghan forces. The report said that the Afghan government’s district and population control was at its lowest level since the end of 2015.

In August of this year, the Afghan government controlled 57 percent of its districts, down from 72 percent in November 2015. Thirteen percent of districts are under insurgent control, while the remaining 30 percent is contested, SIGAR said.

From January until August, the Taliban gained control or influence over nine additional districts, bringing the total to 54 of 405 total districts.

Published in Dawn, January 1st, 2018