- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 22, 2018

A year after the Trump White House unveiled its new war plan for Afghanistan, the highly-touted strategy is beginning to bear fruit as the Taliban inches closer toward Kabul and Washington on a peace plan to end the 17-year conflict, the top U.S. commander in the country said Wednesday.

A key aspect to that burgeoning path towards peace in Afghanistan was the administration’s decision to abandon troop withdrawal timelines initiated by the Obama White House, reaffirming Washington’s commitment to Kabul’s efforts to beat the Taliban toward the negotiation table, Gen. John Nicholson told reporters at the Pentagon.

Serving as the senior U.S. officer overseeing American operations in Afghanistan under the Obama and Trump administrations, the four-star general credited the White House’s South Asia strategy with the shifting dynamics on the ground.

“In the time that I joined this mission as the last commander appointed by President Obama, we were on a glide path to reduce our forces and eventually to close down the mission,” he said during a teleconference from coalition headquarters in Kabul.

“At that time, the enemy had no incentive to negotiate because we were leaving,” Gen. Nicholson said. “In war, which is a contest of wills, the enemy believed that we had lost our will to win and that all they needed to do was wait us out.”

That mentality changed once the South Asia strategy was initiated in June, he said. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s unprecedented call for no preconditions on future peace talks with the Taliban and the group’s open letter to the U.S. expressing its desire for a political solution all took place six months after the strategy was imparted, Gen. Nicholson said.

“Then within 10 months, we had the first cease-fire,” he added.

“I believe the South Asia Strategy is the right approach … and I think that was because we clearly communicated to the enemy they could not wait us out,” under the administration’s war plan, the four-star general noted.

But the recent spate of high-profile Taliban attacks in Afghanistan, capped by the group’s brief takeover of the provincial capital of Ghazni, has analysts and regional observers doubting the success of Mr. Trump’s strategy. Most recently, Taliban insurgents launched a coordinated rocket attack against the highly-fortified diplomatic zone in Kabul Tuesday, as President Ghani was commemorating the beginning of the Islamic holiday of Eid-al Adha.

Technically, the ground war in Afghanistan ground into a stalemate, with the central government in Kabul holding sway over roughly 56 percent of the country’s 407 districts, according to figures compiled by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) in May. Those figures mirror those reported by the government watchdog agency in previous months.

However, the metrics used to determine whether a particular area in Afghanistan is under the government’s control or the Taliban are up for debate. Some areas determined to be within the grasp of Kabul are areas where government forces only control a small portion of a district or provincial center. Outer lying areas that surround these government centers, mostly located in Afghanistan’s southern and eastern countrysides, are rife with Taliban.

“Without U.S. forces there, the Afghan forces would not be able to stave this attack off,” Bill Roggio, a senior fellow with Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said shortly after the takeover of Ghazni.

“That is not success. That is not progress,” he added.

Gen. Nicholson acknowledged Wednesday that military and political control of the country, split between the central government and the Taliban, remained static despite the new U.S. strategy.

“Despite that, we have seen other forms of pressure emerge … that are advancing the peace process,” he said, referring to the groundswell of support by religious and other social groups inside Afghanistan for peace.

But critics argue simply accounting for the effects of growing pressure from religious and social groups into the calculus of weighing success in Afghanistan papers over the discouraging realities on the battlefield.

Gen. Nicholson pushed back against that notion, characterizing the recent Taliban push as an effort by the group “to increase their leverage in the negotiation [process].”

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