‘The Taliban Can’t Win,’ Says Commander Of U.S. Forces In Afghanistan : Parallels : NPR

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Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (second right) stands with Gen. John W. Nicholson (right) during an Oct. 7 ceremony after receiving two Black Hawk helicopters donated by the U.S. government, in Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan.

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Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (second right) stands with Gen. John W. Nicholson (right) during an Oct. 7 ceremony after receiving two Black Hawk helicopters donated by the U.S. government, in Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan.

Massoud Hossaini/AP

Gen. John W. “Mick” Nicholson settles into his wood-paneled office inside the American-led military headquarters in Kabul. It’s lined with plaques, pictures and ceremonial swords.

He has spent more time in Afghanistan, in various jobs, than any other senior American officer — a total of 5 1/2 years. The commander of NATO’s Resolute Support mission and U.S. forces in Afghanistan since March 2016, Nicholson is a genial West Point graduate with salt-and-pepper hair — and a renewed confidence.

That is because the White House has given him more authority to attack the Taliban, more warplanes and drones to mount punishing airstrikes — and a few thousand more American troops to advise the Afghans.

Just eight months ago, Nicholson told Congress that the Afghan fight was at a stalemate.

Now, he tells NPR, “With the policy decision announced by President Trump, the Taliban can’t win. It sets the conditions to get to a peaceful resolution of this conflict.”


But is it still a stalemate?

Nicholson says, “It’s still a stalemate right now. I mean the authority, the troops, the air [power] are newly arrived. I’ve literally gotten these in the last six weeks. But with these, we can move now in the right direction.”

There has been little detail in Washington about the new Trump strategy. Even senators say they’ve been kept in the dark. Just last week, Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who chairs the Armed Services Committee, lashed out at Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joe Dunford.

“In the six weeks since the president made his announcement, this committee and the Congress, more broadly, still does not know many of the crucial details of this strategy,” McCain told the pair. “This is totally unacceptable. I repeat: This is totally unacceptable.”

In his interview with NPR earlier this month, Nicholson laid out some details.

The general says key parts of the strategy include, over the next several years, doubling the size of the Afghan commando force — the Army’s best fighters, currently numbering about 17,000 — and doubling the size of the Afghan Air Force, providing its pilots with modern American Black Hawk helicopters to replace its aging Russian ones.


Maybe more importantly, the troop drawdowns and deadlines set by the Obama administration are no more. Conditions on the ground, success against the Taliban, will be the new metric as the U.S. enters the 17th year of its war in Afghanistan.

Doing away with deadlines, says Nicholson, “is absolutely critical” because the Taliban can no longer just wait until the Americans leave.

Also critical is what Nicholson calls the “Pakistan piece.”

That is shorthand for getting rid of the Taliban safe havens in Pakistan, just across the border. What is uncertain is how this will happen, though some officials in Washington suggest possible U.S. military action — likely drone strikes — against these safe havens if Pakistan doesn’t move to eliminate them.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Pakistan has ignored pleas, threats and the withholding of aid money from the U.S. to eliminate these sanctuaries, which the Taliban uses to plan and regroup. Nicholson says his efforts can’t be successful as long as those safe havens exist.

In fact, the U.S. Army’s own counterinsurgency manual says: “The issue of sanctuaries … cannot be ignored during planning. … Effective COIN [counterinsurgency] operations work to eliminate all sanctuaries.”

“The president said no partnership can survive when one of the partners is providing safe haven to terrorists who are attacking the other,” says Nicholson.

But Pakistan has been providing safe haven for years, so what is different now?

U.S. Army Gen. John Nicholson told the Senate Armed Services Committee in February that the war in Afghanistan was at a “stalemate.”

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U.S. Army Gen. John Nicholson told the Senate Armed Services Committee in February that the war in Afghanistan was at a “stalemate.”

Alex Wong/Getty Images

“Well, No. 1 that’s different,” Nicholson says, “is that those conversations are taking place at the highest levels of government, and I don’t want to insert myself into that.” Top-level officials from Washington already have met with Pakistani leaders, pressing them to end these sanctuaries. More talks are expected in the coming weeks.

Nicholson is convinced that the twin effect of going after Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan and putting military pressure on the Taliban inside Afghanistan will pay off.

“With pressure on their sanctuaries outside the country, with military pressure inside the country,” says Nicholson, “we believe that significant portions of the Taliban will then choose to rejoin society.”

But some military officers and regional experts in Washington believe that is too optimistic. The Taliban have proved resilient, have plenty of weapons and enjoy public support in the southern part of Afghanistan. In that region, the national government is not popular; sometimes seen as predatory, with Afghan police and other officials demanding money or harassing the local population; and unable to provide basic services.


The Taliban either control or exert influence in about 40 percent of Afghanistan, an area that is home to about a third of the population — 11 million people.

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