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Freedom's Sentinel

The U.S. forces are part of a non-combat NATO military mission of about 20,000 troops whose primary mission is training and advising Afghan forces in their battles against Taliban insurgents and terrorists linked to Islamic State.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said in NOvember 2018 month 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 NATOs 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 is based on the R4+S concept Reinforce, Realign, Regionalize, Reconcile, and Sustain. The overarching goal is 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 NATOs 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 Forces 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 is the highest number recorded for this period since reporting began in 2013, and is 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 Afghanistans 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 Afghanistans 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.

By August 2017 US policymakers were close to a new military strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia, but options still ranged from withdrawal to an increased reliance on private security contractors. The US had about 8,400 troops in Afghanistan helping Afghan forces fight the Taliban, while also targeting militants aligned with the al-Qaida and Islamic State terror groups. Plans to send perhaps an additional 4,000 troops to boost US efforts there had been delayed while the White House and military planners reviewed various options.

One possibility that caught Donald Trumps attention was a proposal by a Trump insider to decrease US reliance on its military forces and instead turn to private contractors. Erik Prince, the founder of private security firm Blackwater, proposed replacing US troops with about 5,000 contractors who would be backed by a 90-plane private air force. Prince said his plan would get the job done for less than $10 billion a year.

Prince, a former Navy SEAL, hails from a wealthy western Michigan family. His father, Edgar Prince, founded Prince Automotive, an auto supply firm. Upon his death, his family sold the company to Johnson Controls for $1.35 billion in 1997. Erik Prince used his inheritance to form Blackwater, a training facility for special operation soldiers and police in North Carolina, in 1997. Prince and his family were major GOP donors in 2016. Prince, the brother of US Education Secretary Besty DeVos, met with a high-ranking Russian official on the Sechelles days before Trump was inaugurated, in an effort to establish a back-channel of communication to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) ended on December 31, 2014 and transitioned to Operation Freedoms Sentinel (OFS) on January 1, 2015. OFS is a contingency operation in accordance with Title 10 USC 101(a)(13). Afghanistan is the OFS Designated Operational Area. The deteriorating security situation resulted in a surge in U.S. troop strength from 30,000 in early 2009 to approximately 100,000 from 2010 to 2011. The surge reversed Taliban momentum and enabled a gradual reduction of U.S. forces to 16,100 by December 31, 2014, when the NATO-led combat mission ended and OFS began.

U.S. forces carry out two complementary missions under the military operation known as OFS: counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda, its affiliates, and ISIL-K in Afghanistan; and support for NATOs Resolute Support capacity-building effort, which seeks to build the capacity of the MoD and MoI and to strengthen the ANDSF. OFS began on January 1, 2015, when the United States ended 13 years of combat operations in Afghanistan under Operation Enduring Freedom and transitioned to a NATO-led train, advise, and assist role, while continuing U.S. counterterrorism operations. At that point, the Afghan government assumed full responsibility for the security of Afghanistan with limited U.S. or coalition support on the battlefield.

On October 15, 2015 President Barack Obama announced at the White House that he will keep US troops in Afghanistan through 2016 and a lesser number into 2017 to sustain coalition efforts to train and strengthen Afghan forces. As part of a four-step plan that he said would best ensure lasting progress in Afghanistan, Obama said he would maintain the current posture of 9,800 troops in Afghanistan through most of 2016. Rather than reduce troop levels to a normal embassy presence in Kabul by the end of 2016, Obama said the United States will maintain 5,500 troops and a small number of bases, including at Bagram and Jalalabad in the east and Kandahar in the south.

Obama said 24 March 2015 the 9,800 American troops stationed in Afghanistan will remain there until the end of the year, despite earlier plans to cut them by half. US military presence in Afghanistan had been expected to be cut to 5,500 troops by the middle of 2015, and be brought down to an embassy-level presence by the end of 2016.

The president said that the timeline would be reworked and that the date for a final troop drawdown in early 2017 remains the same. The US administration will ask Congress for funding to allow the Afghan National Security Force to maintain its 352,000 troop level through at least fiscal year 2017.

US Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain said 24 March 2015 that Afghans are making real progress, but would not be able to reach their full capacity by the end of 2016 if US troops withdraw. These are the same capabilities Iraqi forces were missing when the United States precipitously withdrew at the end of 2011, the Senators noted. We must not repeat this mistake. But that is exactly what will happen if President Obama insists on withdrawing from Afghanistan whether the job is done or not."

Insurgent attacks continued across Afghanistan by the end of 2016 with the Taliban remaining the greatest threat to the Afghan government. With a strength estimated by U.S. Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A) to number 25,000 to 35,000 full or part-time fighters, the Taliban launched a series of attacks on 6 provincial capitals in October 2016, following its stated campaign strategy of capturing at least 1 provincial capital in 2016.

Aided by U.S. airstrikes, however, the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF or Afghan security forces) repelled the attacks and maintained control over all provincial capitals and population centers. The extent of Afghan government territorial control or influence decreased 6 percent since August 2016. At the end of the quarter, the government maintained control or influence in 233 (57 percent) of the 407 districts in Afghanistan, while the Taliban controlled or influenced 41 districts (10 percent), with the remainder considered contested.

Although meetings to restart the peace process were held between Taliban and Afghan representatives in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar during the quarter, no further developments in the process occurred. The relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan remained tense this quarter, with sporadic cross-border artillery attacks occurring along their shared border. However, the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission (Resolute Support) facilitated more frequent dialogue between senior Afghan military officers and their Pakistani counterparts this quarter in an effort to improve border relationships.

Donald Trump was advised to turn to private military contractors and hire a mercenary army to "fix" Afghanistan, where it has been at war since 2001. The proposal was offered by Steve Bannon, President Donald Trumps chief strategist, and Jared Kushner, his senior adviser and son-in-law. Local media reports say that Erik D. Prince, a founder of the private military company Blackwater Worldwide, and Stephen A. Feinberg, a billionaire financier who owns the giant military contractor DynCorp International, were quick to jump on the idea and each see a role for themselves in this future.

Blackwater, founded by Prince, is a private military company that gained notoriety in Iraq following the US invasion in 2003. During the Iraq War, Blackwater was involved in numerous troubling incidents. The most infamous was the Nisour Square massacre, when contractors opened fire on a crowd of civilians in Baghdad, killing 17; it led to court cases that put four of the contractors in prison.

Donald Trump is 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".

A Taliban official said on 06 February 2019 that the United States had promised to withdraw half of its troops from Afghanistan by the end of April, but the US military said no timeframe had been set. Abdul Salam Hanafi, speaking on the sidelines of a meeting in Moscow between the Taliban and other prominent Afghan figures, said American officials pledged the pullout will begin this month. "The Americans told us that from the beginning of February to the end of April half of the troops from Afghanistan will be withdrawn," Hanafi told reporters. But Pentagon spokesman Army Colonel Rob Manning said the US military had received no orders to begin withdrawing. "Peace talks with the Taliban continue, but [the Defense Department] has not received a directive to change the force structure in Afghanistan," said Manning.



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