Dunford Encouraged by Afghan, Coalition Efforts in Afghanistan

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff completed an extensive visit to Afghanistan, and leaves encouraged by the Afghan and coalition military potential in the country.

Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford and his senior team visited coalition and U.S. Train Advise Assist Commands throughout the nation. He also spoke with senior Afghan, coalition and U.S. officials. He spoke with lance corporals, tech sergeants, lieutenants, commanders and colonels to assess the situation and ensure the U.S. effort in Afghanistan is properly resourced.

He told reporters traveling with him that he is convinced that this fundamentally different approach is the correct way ahead for the Afghan campaign.

The military effort hinges around training, advising and assisting Afghan forces. It also calls for a doubling of Afghan special operations forces and continued growth of the Afghan air force.

The advisory effort is already having an effect with the Afghans being able to leverage coalition air and ground fires and also being able to integrate coalition fires with Afghan fires. “Their ability at the tactical level to conduct combined arms [operations] in conjunction with maneuver will be significantly improved by the advisory effort,” Dunford said.

Afghan Police, Army Coordination

Another equally important development is the Afghan ability to use the network of advisors to facilitate coordination among the Afghan police, the intelligence agency, the Afghan army and the Afghan special security forces, he said.

“As I reflected on the last 18 to 24 months,” Dunford said, “it really was the Afghan special security forces, with our special operations advisors, that have actually bought the time and space that allows us to implement the South Asia strategy.”

The current U.S. and coalition campaign in Afghanistan “is not another year of the same thing we’ve been doing for 17 years,” Dunford said.

Through 2013, he said, U.S. forces were in the lead in Afghanistan. In June 2013, Afghan forces took the lead in terms of authority and responsibility. That began a coalition drawdown from 140,000 troops in the country to 28,000 by the end of 2014.

The number of coalition forces in the country further dropped to “8,000 and we weren’t able to deliver an advisory effort at the right level,” the general said.

Right Levels of Resources

Dunford believes the right levels of resources now back the strategy, and this should bring new capabilities, boost confidence and build momentum in Afghanistan. This should bring pressure to bear on the Taliban to stop fighting and give them the incentive to reintegrate with the Afghan population and, more broadly, to seek some political process in Afghanistan for peace.

“With the conditions-based strategy now, the Taliban is looking at perpetual war that they cannot win,” Dunford said.

The chairman said he is optimistic about the military campaign this year because of the growing capabilities of the Afghan air force and the expertise with which the Afghans are integrating the capabilities into their battle plans.

The campaign this summer is designed to help the government secure more of the country to enable citizens to vote in legislative elections this fall and in presidential elections in 2019. The Afghan government would like to expand government control so more of the population can participate.

Security of the elections and a reduction in casualties among Afghan forces are two metrics the chairman said he will examine moving forward.

“I would expect to see a reduction in the casualties experienced by the Afghan forces as a result of their ability to integrate combined arms and their ability to cooperate across the pillars of security,” he said.

The Afghan military has experienced thousands of casualties over the past years.

Afghan Government-Taliban Reconciliation Efforts

The chairman said he expects the United States to play a role in reconciliation efforts between the Afghan government and the Taliban. “Our strategy for South Asia includes reconciliation as one of the end states,” he said. “It’s our objective as well as the Afghans.”

Added pressure will convince some Taliban fighters to stop fighting before the group as a whole reconciles, the chairman said. Having a reintegration process for those Taliban willing to make peace, he said, will support the longer-term goal of reconciliation.

“They are related,” Dunford said. “What we expect to see now is a formal reintegration program supported by the Afghans, the United States and the coalition.”

The character of the fight is different at every Training Advise Assist Command in the country, and advisors are going to have to adopt their advice to the needs of the Afghan forces they are based with, the chairman said.

At Tactical Base Gamberi in the eastern part of the country, advisors work with the Afghan 201st Corps. The battle plan is well-developed and leaders expect deliberate operations to wrest area from the Taliban.

In the Train Advice Assist Command – Southwest region, the Afghans control central Helmand province’s population centers. The overall province is a very rural area and the fighting is really over denying the Taliban the resources from drugs.

Well-Trained Advisors

“We sent over these well-trained, experienced, hand-selected advisors and now they have to adapt to the environment they are in and what the Afghans need,” Dunford said.

The key in Afghanistan is to bring political pressure, social pressure and military pressure to bear on the Taliban to convince them they cannot win on the battlefield, the chairman said.

There is a psychological aspect to this as well, he added.

“What is the impact on the Taliban’s will to fight as they increasingly look up in the sky and it’s no longer coalition aircraft — it’s Afghan aircraft? When they see the pillars of security are cooperating? When they realize that the forces giving them the toughest times are doubling in size?” the general said.

He added, “Am I focused on doing all those things simultaneously? Yes. That’s my message going back home and that’s what [Defense Secretary James N. Mattis] came back with as well. We have the military elements in place. Let’s make sure we are equally focused on the other elements of the strategy.”

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