U.S. shifts emphasis of new operations against Taliban to eastern Afghanistan

The top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan said Tuesday that U.S. troops are shifting the primary emphasis of recently approved operations against the Taliban to the eastern part of the country, where a variety of insurgents remain entrenched.

Army Gen. John. W. Nicholson Jr. told reporters that he is applying new authorities approved by President Obama in June “almost daily,” and that they extend beyond carrying out airstrikes to providing specific kinds of U.S. troops to plan and carry out operations. In one recent example, the new authorities were applied as Afghan forces attacked the Taliban in the southern district of Maiwand, in Kandahar province, he said.
Since then, offensive operations have started to shift east to Nangarhar province as the Afghan military carries out a campaign plan it established for the year, Nicholson said. The mountainous region along the Pakistani border is home to both members of the Taliban and the Islamic State militant group. Nicholson said U.S. forces will “use our authorities to assist the Afghans there in an offensive, proactive manner.”

One U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the operations, said that a “couple dozen” airstrikes have been carried out using the new authorities since they were approved. Nicholson said he reviews requests made through them personally before they are approved. Under the new rules, if the operations are deemed to be of strategic importance, the United States can get directly involved.

The general’s comments came toward the end of a day-long visit to Afghanistan by Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter. He landed at Bagram Airfield in a C-17 cargo plane late in the morning, and was quickly whisked away in an Army CH-47 helicopter to meet at the presidential palace in Kabul with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. They discussed a variety of issues, including how the new authorities can be used.

Ghani, speaking in a joint news conference with Carter afterward, thanked U.S. soldiers for their sacrifices in Afghanistan during the past 15 years and said that Afghanistan has entered a “very special phase.” The new authorities approved by the United States are each worth 20,000 armed forces, speaking with some hyperbole in Dari.

The Afghan leader also thanked Obama for announcing last week that he will leave 8,400 U.S. troops in Afghanistan through the end of his term as president, rather than shrinking the number to 5,500, as previously planned. There are presently about 9,800 U.S. troops deployed.

Ghani said the Afghan government has always pursued peace, but it has not been reciprocated by the Taliban. A bridge built with $2 million can be blown up by insurgents for the price of $10,000, he noted.

Carter said the new authorities are a “very simple but very important thing,” and will allow coalition forces in Afghanistan to anticipate battlefield dynamics rather than just responding to deteriorating security situations. Under the old rules, U.S. airstrikes could only be carried out against the Taliban in situations in which threats were considered dire.

“It makes a lot more sense for our commanders working with their Afghan counterparts to look at the battlefield, look at what they know the enemy has planned and how the enemy is moving and to anticipate their movement,” Carter said.

Nicholson, speaking at Bagram just before Carter departed, provided the most detailed breakdown to date on what the new number of U.S. troops — 8,448 were approved by the White House — remaining in Afghanistan will include. Among them are 2,150 service members focused on a counterterrorism mission known as Freedom’s Sentinel. An additional 3,000 U.S. troops are focused exclusively on advising Afghan forces, with the remaining 3,300 Americans carrying out supporting missions.

The United States will contribute 6,700 troops to the NATO-led Resolute Support mission next year under the new deployment plans. But a little-known wrinkle is that 400 of them will be based in other countries in the region in an “over the horizon” force. They will carry out support missions and travel to and from Afghanistan as needed, Nicholson said. They also will not count against the 8,400-troop number just approved by the White House.