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July 13, 2016

US to fight Taliban along with Afghan forces

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July 13, 2016

KABUL: The senior US commander in Afghanistan will have greater freedom to strike at the Taliban under broad new powers approved last month by President Barack Obama, US Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Tuesday.

Carter, on an unannounced visit to Afghanistan, said the powers granted to General John Nicholson would allow “much more efficient use and effective use of the forces we have here as well as the Afghan forces.”

The new authorities give US forces greater ability to accompany and enable Afghan forces battling a resilient Taliban insurgency, while also allowing greater use of US air power, particularly close air support. Previously, Nicholson — who commands both the Nato-led Resolute Support mission and a separate US counter terrorism mission — was only allowed to take action against the Taliban “in extremis,” or moments when assistance was needed to prevent a significant Afghan military setback.

“Whereas previously he waited until a situation had developed in which Afghan forces really needed our enabling support, now he’s able to look ahead,” Carter said at a talk with American troops at the Bagram air base, flanked by Nicholson.

“That’s a better way of making use of what we have here now,” he said.Afghan forces, fighting largely on their own since the Nato-led mission ended most combat operations in 2014, have frequently asked for more combat assistance from their allies, particularly for close airstrikes.

Nicholson said the broader authorities were being used “almost daily” in support of Afghan forces. He pointed to a significant pickup in the pace of US operations 18 months after the end of the main Nato combat mission.

A US military official said the new authorities had been used a couple of dozen times since they were approved by the White House in June.Carter’s visit comes days after Obama shelved plans to cut the US force in Afghanistan nearly in half by year’s end, opting instead to keep 8,400 troops there through to the end of his presidency in January.

Of that number, around 3,000 will be advising Afghan troops, and 3,300 will be working as “enablers” in support roles, Nicholson said. An additional 400 troops based “over the horizon” — outside Afghanistan — will round out the US contribution to the Nato mission. An additional 2,150 US troops will be focused on counter terrorism operations, he said.

As an example of how the new authorities are being used, Nicholson cited “combat enablers” the United States had provided to the Afghans in their fight to expand the territory they control around the northern city of Kunduz. Such enablers can serve in a broad variety of roles, such as engineers or electronic warfare specialists.

He contrasted that with the US role last year, when Kunduz was briefly captured by the Taliban. At that time, the city was defended by Afghan forces battling largely without Nato’s support.

“It’s more of an offensive nature to that operation that we’re assisting,” Nicholson told reporters in Bagram.Americans have been backing up Afghan troops fighting Taliban militants in other hotly contested regions, including Uruzgan and Maiwand in Kandahar province in the south.

“I think all the uses have been right in line with the intended purpose that the president gave us,” Nicholson said.The Taliban have made major gains and are estimated to control more territory than at any time since they were driven from power by a US-led campaign in 2001 aimed at dismantling al-Qaeda and denying it a safe haven in Afghanistan.

Carter, who met both Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah as well as senior US military commanders, said it was “critical” that the national unity government formed after disputed elections in 2014 maintained stability.

Ghani thanked the United States as well as other Nato allies who last week pledged to maintain support for Afghanistan. He also praised Afghan forces, who he said had been “standing tall” since the departure of foreign combat forces. 

AFP adds: US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter reiterated Washington’s support for “courageous” Afghan security.Carter’s cautious praise came as President Ashraf Ghani welcomed the “environment of trust” between Washington and Kabul at a joint news conference in the Afghan capital.

“The Afghan security forces have demonstrated the motivation, the will and the resilience in the face of a persistent enemy,” Carter said.“I have confidence in the ability of the Afghan forces... and I commend them for fighting courageously last year during a tough fighting season.”

But Carter offered a blunter assessment to US troops at Bagram air base north of Kabul, saying that without international financial and military support “Afghan forces aren’t going to be able to solidify their control over the country”.

“And this democratic national unity government ain’t going to be able to do it,” he added, hours after his meeting with Ghani. “Everybody knows that.”The Pentagon chief’s unannounced visit follows a renewed commitment to Afghanistan from Nato, which said over the weekend it would keep forces there until the end of 2017 at least.

Most are American, but around 40 countries have deployed troops there. Their official role is to train the Afghan forces, which are now responsible for their country’s security.Both Carter and Ghani also addressed the role of Afghanistan’s neighbour Pakistan, long accused by Kabul of sponsoring militants including the Taliban.

Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour was killed by a US drone in Pakistan earlier this year in a strike that Islamabad said violated its sovereignty.But Carter, while stressing the US would work with Pakistan “wherever it can” on extremism, warned that Washington would “continue to target and strike terrorist leaders everywhere in the world where they might threaten Americans or our interests and our friends”.

“Pakistan has a fundamental decision to make,” added Ghani, who has loudly demanded in the past that Pakistan take action against the Taliban. “There is no difference between good terrorists and bad terrorists.”

About 13,000 Nato troops are stationed in Afghanistan under the Operation Resolute Support to train and assist Afghan security forces.Nato has agreed about 12,000 will stay until at least 2017, though in reality local troops are likely to need foreign support and funding for years to come.


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