- The Washington Times - Monday, November 28, 2016

Afghan forces are incapable of rolling back gains made by a resurgent Taliban over the past several months without a larger U.S. military presence in the country, according to an analysis of the 15-year-old conflict.

A rash of attacks against American, Afghan and coalition forces by Taliban insurgents and a growing number of Islamic State fighters over the past two months have left 25 U.S. and European soldiers and civilians killed or wounded across Afghanistan.

The attacks prompted Afghan commanders and their U.S. counterparts to launch combat operations for the first time against the Taliban and the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, during the traditional winter lull in fighting.

But the move could have little effect on stemming the violence without more U.S. troops, say analysts at the nonprofit Institute for the Study of War in Washington.

Afghan forces remain “highly dependent on current levels of U.S. support to regenerate units and secure government-controlled territory,” the institute says in a November threat assessment.

“[Afghan National Security Forces] are incapable of recapturing significant swaths of Taliban-controlled territory at current levels of U.S. support,” the assessment says.

Taliban militant offensives [have] subverted the ANSF’s ability to seize territory from militants, allowing militants to expand their territorial control” in all quadrants of the country, it adds.

Roughly 8,400 U.S. service members remain in the country training and advising Afghan forces and providing air support for Afghan-led operations against the Taliban-held areas in the northern and southern portions of the country and Islamic State-held territory in the east.

Despite such dire assessments of the war, which is the longest armed conflict in U.S. history, Afghanistan has barely registered with the incoming Trump administration. President-elect Donald Trump has yet to articulate a stance or outline a viable way ahead for U.S. strategy in the country.

However, his prospective picks to lead the Pentagon and State Department could provide the next administration with a wealth of knowledge on what Afghanistan’s endgame could look like.

Retired Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, who was President Obama’s top commander in Iraq and Afghanistan before serving as CIA director, has been mentioned as a secretary of state candidate in a Trump administration. He met Monday with the president-elect in New York.

Retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, who is seen as the front-runner for the top job at the Defense Department, commanded the 7th Marine Regiment in southern Afghanistan in 2007 and served multiple combat tours in Iraq.

But the situation facing the next administration in Afghanistan is much more difficult compared with what Mr. Petraeus and Mr. Mattis faced during their time in uniform. Afghan forces have suffered staggering casualties as they try to hold their ground against the Taliban.

A series of brazen bombings and attacks by the Taliban beginning in mid-October punctuated a particularly difficult fighting season. The wave of attacks prompted Afghan commanders to order a major winter counteroffensive. Dubbed Operation Shafaq Two, the offensive will focus on Taliban and Islamic State positions in 13 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, Stars and Stripes reported on Nov. 21.

“The aim is to continue eliminating the terrorists inside Afghanistan, targeting their supply routes, recruitment places and those areas where they gather and have hideouts,” Gen. Mohammad Radmanish, deputy spokesman for the Defense Ministry, said in a statement, according to Stars and Stripes.

A tough fight

On Oct. 19, Army Sgt. Douglas Riney, 26, and Michael Sauro, a 40-year-old Defense Department civilian, were killed by an Afghan soldier in an apparent insider attack at Camp Morehead, a U.S. base just outside the Afghan capital of Kabul.

They were part of a three-member team assigned to inspect the camp’s ammunition supply depots, according to news reports.

On Nov. 3, two U.S. Army Special Forces members were killed during heavy fighting in the Taliban-dominated Buze Kandahari area of the northern Afghan province of Kunduz.

Capt. Andrew Byers and Sgt. 1st Class Ryan Gloyer were attached to 2nd Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group based out of Fort Carson, Colorado. The Special Forces troops were assisting Afghan special operations teams hunting Taliban targets in the area.

Afghan officials also reported that 34 civilians, including women and children, were killed during a coalition airstrike called in by Afghan forces during the pitched firefight with Taliban fighters where both Americans were killed.

A week after the Buze Kandarhari attack, on Nov. 10, a Taliban suicide bomber attacked the heavily fortified German Consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif, the provincial capital of Kunduz, leaving four civilians dead and scores wounded.

Two days later, an Islamic State suicide bomber infiltrated Bagram Air Base, the main U.S. military hub in central Afghanistan, and set off his deadly ordnance inside the base. The Nov. 12 attack killed four Americans — two U.S. soldiers and two contractors — and wounded 16 U.S. soldiers.

It was the first suicide bombing inside the wire of the American installation.

Islamic State bombers struck again four days later in a Nov. 16 suicide bombing that targeted Afghan forces near the Defense Ministry in Kabul. The terrorist group followed up with a massive bombing at one of the Afghan capital’s largest Shiite mosques, killing more than 30 civilians and wounding dozens of others.

It was the third major attack against Afghan Shiites in Kabul since July, according to reports by The Guardian.

Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook dismissed claims that recent violence against U.S. and coalition troops, which spurred the winter offensive, was a sign that the situation in Afghanistan is spiraling out of Kabul’s control.

While the Pentagon remains “very concerned about any reports of violence in Afghanistan, whether it’s from Taliban or ISIL in Afghanistan,” the spike in attacks have proved the Afghan military’s resolve in the face of a stiffening enemy, he said.

“What you’ve got is a situation in Afghanistan where they have set up a national strategy in terms of how to confront the Taliban,” Mr. Cook said on Nov. 22.

“Although it’s been a difficult fighting season, they’ve been able in a resilient fashion to [take] the fight to the Taliban,” he said, adding that the winter offensive “is a reflection of the kind of capabilities that the Afghan security forces now have in which they’re leaning forward.”

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