Freedom's Sentinel 2018
The U.S. forces were part of a non-combat NATO military mission of about 20,000 troops whose primary mission was training and advising Afghan forces in their battles against Taliban insurgents and terrorists linked to Islamic State.
The Afghan Taliban issued a “Letter of the Islamic Emirate to the American people” on 14 February 2018, which was reported as an appeal for negotiations between the Taliban and the United States. Instead, the Taliban demanded that the US and the West withdraw from Afghanistan so the Taliban can establish its government. The Taliban considered itself, not the Afghan government, as the representative of its people: " According we still believe that it is not too late for the American people to understand that the Islamic Emirate – as representative of its people – can solve its problems with every side through healthy politics and dialogue. Needless use of force only complicates the issues by creating new dimensions which gradually move out of the realm of control. The Islamic Emirate is a regional power with deep roots which cannot be subdued by sheer force. The chances of dialogue however are not exhausted. The American people must understand that the Islamic Emirate understands its responsibility and can play a constructive role in finding a peaceful solution for issues but this can never mean that we are exhausted or our will has been sapped. It is our policy that logic should be given a chance before the use of force. Whatever can be achieved by logic, should not be relinquished due to the use of force. It is the moral obligation of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan to inform you, the American masses, about these realities."
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said in November 2018 that nearly 30,000 ANDSF forces had been killed in the fighting since 2015. The insurgents, currently controlling or hotly contesting about half of Afghanistan, continued to inflict heavy casualties on government forces and make territorial gains.
The United States maintained as of mid-2018 approximately 14,000 military personnel in Afghanistan as part of NATO’s RS mission and OFS. These personnel maintain a presence primarily at bases in Kabul and Bagram with regional outstations in Nangarhar Province in the east, Kandahar Province in the south, Herat Province in the west, and Balkh Province in the north.
The logical framework for success in Afghanistan was based on the R4+S concept — Reinforce, Realign, Regionalize, Reconcile, and Sustain. The overarching goal was a sustainable political outcome in Afghanistan that preserves U.S. vital interests, including preventing terrorist groups from using Afghan territory to direct or support external attacks against the U.S. homeland, U.S. citizens, and our allies and partners overseas.
Responding to the increasing insecurity in Kabul, General John Nicholson, commander of United States Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A) and NATO’s Resolute Support (RS) mission, said security in Kabul was his primary focus. Meanwhile, the United States increased its military effort in Afghanistan. In early 2018, more U.S. warplanes shifted from Iraq and Syria to Afghanistan.
In early 2018, the United States deployed the first Security Force Assistant Brigade (SFAB) to Afghanistan, designed to increase the NATO capacity to train and advise the Afghan forces, arrived in the country. The SFAB enables advising below the corps and zone levels, at the appropriate level of decision-making, and supplements an increasingly effective train, advise, and assist (TAA) model. The deployment of the SFAB makes it possible to utilize an increasing number of Expeditionary Advisory Packages (EAPs) of advisors focused on improving ANDSF capability at the point of need. The SFAB also allows tailored support to the regional ANDSF commands to fill enduring and emergent capability gaps, particularly fires, ISR, and MEDEVAC.
Accordingly, early 2018 had seen an uptick in the number of U.S. air strikes conducted in Afghanistan. According to the U.S. Air Force’s Central Command Combined Air Operations Center, the United States dropped 378 munitions in January, 469 in February, and 339 in March 2018 during 215 missions. The total of 1,186 munitions dropped in the first quarter of 2018 was the highest number recorded for this period since reporting began in 2013, and was over two and a half times the amount dropped in the first quarter of 2017.
Since President Trump announced the new U.S. strategy for South Asia on August 21, 2017, there has been a shift in Afghanistan’s military and diplomatic efforts. This announcement of a conditions-based strategy breathed new life into the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) and the Afghan government. The shift from a time-based to conditions-based approach also sowed new doubt in the Taliban, as fighters and leadership recognized that the United States was committed to Afghanistan and committed to transforming the ANDSF into a lethal force capable of defending its homeland. The increased military pressure, the increased capacity of the ANDSF, and the renewed confidence of the Afghan government led President Ghani in February 2018, at the second Kabul Peace Conference, to offer peace negotiations without preconditions to the Taliban. This unprecedented initiative opens the door for meaningful negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
The Afghan government now pursued a political settlement with the Taliban using a two-pronged approach that emphasized increased military pressure in order to open the door for meaningful peace negotiations with reconcilable factions of the Taliban. The Afghan government was aware that the offer alone was not enough; it must be matched by a carefully crafted plan for negotiating peace, and a plan for reintegrating Taliban fighters into Afghanistan’s civil society.
In February 2018, U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) designated Afghanistan as its main effort mission and allocated additional combat enablers such as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets, attack aviation, fire support, and medical evacuation (MEDEVAC) assets to support ANDSF and coalition forces. These asset shifts did not represent a return to U.S.- led combat operations. Rather, the targeted investment of assets in Afghanistan was designed to dramatically increase the offensive capabilities of the ANDSF this fighting season.
Donald Trump was considering withdrawing roughly half of the more than 14,000 U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan, senior administration officials said 20 December 2018. Under the reported plan, about 7,000 U.S. troops would start coming home in January 2019, and the rest would exit in the following months in a phased drawdown. The comments from the U.S. officials came a day after Trump's stunning announcement that the U.S. would pull its troops out of Syria.
"I think it shows how serious the president is about wanting to come out of conflicts," one official told The Wall Street Journal. "I think he wants to see viable options about how to bring conflicts to a close." The Trump administration had been looking for a negotiated settlement of the war in Afghanistan, which would include talks with the Taliban.
"If the few thousand foreign troops that advise, train and assist, leave it will not affect our security," said Fazel Fazly, the chief Afghan presidential advisor in Kabul. He dismissed suggestions the Afghan National Defense Security Forces (ANDSF) would collapse with the departure of U.S.-led International forces.
U.S. military commanders had been skeptical about whether ANDSF would be able to sustain battlefield pressure from the Taliban without support from foreign partners. "They are not there yet and if we left precipitously right now I don't believe they would be able to successfully defend their country," Lt. Gen. Frank McKenzie, nominated to head U.S. Central Command, told a Congressional hearing in early December when asked whether Afghan forces would be able to defend the country without foreign military support.
U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, concluded another round of talks with Taliban negotiators in the United Arab Emirates in mid-December 2018. Both sides described the dialogue as productive and promised to meet again in the Gulf country. The main Taliban spokesman saidthat during the two-day talks in Abu Dhabi, which started on 17 December 2018, insurgent officials sought nothing but "a date or timeline" for all U.S.-led forces to pull out from Afghanistan. Khalilzad sought assurances that terrorists would not be allowed to use Afghan soil to threaten the security of the United Sates.
Michael Kugelman, deputy director Asia program and South Asia senior associate at Washington's Wilson Center describe the timing of the U.S. drawdown plan as "breathtakingly bad", fearing the move could squander the latest effort to seek a negotiated settlement to the prolonged Afghan war. "Let's be clear: Trump's decision, if confirmed, amounts to a propaganda coup and a tactical triumph for the Taliban. It's gotten the troop withdrawals it's always wanted. And it now has an added battlefield advantage. Doubtful the Taliban will reciprocate with its own concession".
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