- The Washington Times - Monday, November 20, 2017

Afghan and coalition forces will be able to drive the Taliban from 80 percent of the country within the next two years, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said Monday, setting an ambitious strategic goal after President Trump announced his own war plan that shunned such timelines for the 16-year-old war.

Nearly three months into Mr. Trump’s revised war strategy for Afghanistan, the situation on the ground remains a stalemate, with the central government in Kabul not ceding any territory to the Taliban while not making any significant gains against the terrorist group over the past year, Gen. John Nicholson, head of all U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said in a briefing in Kabul.

“The amount of control by the Afghan force is roughly the same as last year,” Gen. Nicholson said. “Two-thirds of the country, the population is under government control, and then about a third is either under Taliban control or contested. So, of that one-third, maybe 20 percent to 25 percent is contested.”

The general also revealed that U.S. airstrikes have targeted drug producing facilities in Afghanistan for the first time under a strategy aimed at cutting off a key source of terrorist financing.

Raids on Sunday targeted sites in southern Helmand province. Afghan and American aircraft, including B-52 bombers and F-22 attack planes — took part. U.S. officials estimated that insurgents generate an estimated $200 million a year from poppy cultivation and opium production.

Keeping the Taliban from seizing territory has not been easy, said Gen. Nicholson. Over the past three years, since the official end of American and allied combat operations in 2014, Afghan National Security Forces have waged war against the Taliban with the smallest number of Western troops in the country since 2001.

“We essentially fought, in 2017, at the lowest level of capability that the U.S. has had in Afghanistan in the entire war,” he said. “So the fighting depended heavily on the Afghans. And they went on the offensive, and we supported them within our capabilities.”

At the time, roughly 11,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines were stationed in Afghanistan, with 8,400 supporting the NATO-led military adviser mission. Other U.S. troops, mostly from special operations units, were conducting direct counterterrorism missions against the Taliban and Islamic State.

Now, nearly 14,000 American forces are on the ground as part of the White House surge of an additional 3,900 troops, a key element of Mr. Trump’s Afghanistan war plan.

“We’ve just completed a force flow into Afghanistan,” Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the Pentagon’s Joint Staff director, said last week.

Mr. Trump also expanded commanders’ authority to conduct combat operations against the Taliban or other extremists in the country and said he was abandoning the Obama-era withdrawal deadlines for a “conditions-based” approach.

With more troops, more local authority and fewer withdrawal deadlines, Gen. Nicholson predicted that Afghan and coalition forces could wrest back 80 percent of the country from the Taliban over the next two years.

“Currently, [Kabul] controls about two-thirds of the population so we would like to see that increase to at least 80 percent,” he told reporters Thursday.

The two-year goal is set to coincide with a slew of nationwide parliamentary and district-level elections, culminating in the country’s 2019 presidential elections.

In March, Defense Secretary James Mattis reportedly weighed revising the rules of engagement would raise the “acceptable” number of estimated collateral civilian casualties to authorize a U.S. or allied airstrike, giving American commanders a freer hand in ordering strikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria — which the Trump White House strongly advocated.

As U.S.-led air operations against Islamic State decline in the Middle East, those assets will likely be redirected toward the fight in Afghanistan, Gen. Nicholson said.

• Carlo Muñoz can be reached at cmunoz@washingtontimes.com.

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