- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 2, 2018

American forces in Afghanistan will pursue a more aggressive battle plan for the 16-year conflict in the coming year, with U.S. troops more engaged in the fight against the Taliban and other extremist groups for the first time since President Obama officially ended combat operations four years ago.

U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Joseph Votel outlined details of the American battle plan in Afghanistan on Tuesday, a battle plan which will depend heavily on the new influx of U.S. troops into the country approved by President Trump late last year. The near-term goal for the roughly 3,900 U.S. servicemembers heading into Afghanistan will be to give Afghan security forces a significant advantage in this year’s upcoming fighting season, Gen. Votel said.

American and NATO commanders intend to “focus on offensive operations and … look for a major effort to gain the initiative very quickly as we enter into the fighting season,” the general said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Afghan security forces, with ramped-up assistance from the U.S. and NATO-led coalition, must “keep the pressure on all the time and work to gain the upper hand as quickly as we can. So that as we get into this next fighting season we can build on the initiative,” Gen. Votel said.

Past U.S.-Afghan military offensives have failed to end the long conflict with the Taliban and other Islamist groups, and Mr. Trump’s new approach risks a new spike in U.S. casualties in what is already the longest conflict in U.S. history.

Officials at coalition headquarters in Kabul on Tuesday confirmed an American soldier was killed and four were wounded in eastern Afghanistan’s violent Nangarhar province on New Year’s Day. The U.S. casualty is the first official American death in Afghanistan of 2018.

Gen. Votel’s more aggressive posture echoes comments from Gen. John Nicholson, the top American commander in the country, who predicted Afghan and allied forces would be able to reclaim 80 percent of the country from Taliban control 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 at the Pentagon in November.

The two-year goal coincides with a slew of nationwide parliamentary and district-level elections, culminating in Afghanistan’s 2019 presidential elections.

Nearly 11,000 soldiers, sailors, Airmen and Marines have been stationed in Afghanistan since the U.S. and its European allies transitioned from combat operations in the country to a military advisory role in 2014. Roughly 8,400 U.S. troops are assigned to the NATO-led military adviser mission dubbed Operation Resolute Support.

The remaining number of American troops, mostly U.S. special operations units, were conducting direct counterterrorism missions against the Taliban and Islamic State under Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. But last August, Mr. Trump ordered a 3,900-man troop surge into Afghanistan, as part of the administration’s new war strategy for the country.

As part of that surge, Army officials announced the 4th Infantry Division’s 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team and 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team would be heading into Afghanistan for the spring fighting season.

James Stavridis, a retired Navy admiral who served as the top U.S. commander for NATO from 2009 until 2013, told the AP that the ultimate goal in Afghanistan remains the same: forcing the Taliban to join talks seeking a long-term peace deal.

“There is a slightly better than even chance that there are some new factors which move us toward the possibility of a successful outcome,” Mr. Stavridis, now dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, told the news service. Those changes, he said, include the elimination of troop withdrawal timelines and Taliban fatigue.

“I think [the Taliban] are tired, too. This is also a 17-year war for them,” Mr. Stavridis said, but suggested any settlement will require compromise. “Is this going to be a sweeping victory? No. But I think the odds are much higher of getting them to the negotiating table.”

⦁ This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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

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