Pence: 'We Are Staying in That Fight' in Afghanistan

Vice President of the United States Mike Pence visits U.S. service members and speaks on the strategy in Afghanistan, Dec. 21, 2017 at Bagram Airfield. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Divine Cox)
Vice President of the United States Mike Pence visits U.S. service members and speaks on the strategy in Afghanistan, Dec. 21, 2017 at Bagram Airfield. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Divine Cox)

Vice President Mike Pence summed up the year 2017 in Afghanistan, and the 16 years that went before it, on a visit to Kabul just before Christmas when he state to President Ashraf Ghani: "We've been on a long road together."

The road would get longer under President Donald Trump's "South Asia" strategy announced in August that pledged an open-ended commitment to driving the Taliban to the peace table, Pence said days before another series of horrific suicide attacks.

Speaking to troops at the Bagram air base north of Kabul on Dec. 21, Pence delivered much the same message as previous administrations:

"We came here to Afghanistan to liberate its people and prevent the terrorists from ever threatening our homeland again. And we are staying in that fight and we will see it through to the end," the vice president said.

"Under President Donald Trump, the Armed Forces of the United States will remain engaged in Afghanistan until we eliminate the terrorist threat to our homeland, our people, once and for all," Pence said.

"We believe that we are now on a path to achieve a lasting victory for freedom and security in Afghanistan," he said earlier in his meeting with Ghani and Afghan chief executive Abdullah Abdullah.

The difference this time will be the Trump strategy developed by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis that will be based on conditions on the ground and "not arbitrary timetables," Pence said.

In a briefing from Kabul to the Pentagon earlier in December, Air Force Brig. Gen. Lance Bunch outlined the strategy in more direct terms:

"What I can tell you is that the new strategy highlights that this is a new war and that the gloves are off, if you will, and that we've got now these authorities we need to be able to go and target the Taliban network," the general said.

Bunch spoke at the start of what was a particularly bloody month, even by Afghan standards, that ended a particularly bloody year.

On Dec. 28, at least 41 people were killed and 84 wounded in a bombing at a Shiite cultural center in Kabul. The ISIS offshoot known as Islamic State-Khorasan Province, or ISIS-K, claimed responsibility.

The Kabul bombing was the latest in a series of mass casualty attacks by ISIS-K on Shiite targets. In October, suicide bombers killed at least 57 at a Shiite mosque in Kabul.

On Dec. 31, a suicide bomber walked into a cemetery in the eastern Afghanistan province of Nangarhar and blew himself up during the funeral of a local official, killing at least 17 people and wounding 14.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility but both the Taliban and ISIS-K are active in Nangarhar.

Last April, Army Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan and the NATO Resolute Support mission, authorized dropping the largest non-nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal against ISIS-K.

The more than 21,000-pound GBU-43B Massive Ordnance Air Blast, or MOAB, known as the "Mother of All Bombs," was dropped on an ISIS-K cave complex in the Achin district of Nangarhar.

U.S. Special Forces later joined the Afghan National Defense Security Forces (ANDSF) in raids against ISIS-K in Nangarhar, but the group has continued its terror attacks.

The attacks contributed to what will make 2017 one of the deadliest years in Afghanistan since U.S. forces entered the country in 2001 to topple the Taliban regime.

For the first nine months of 2017, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan estimated that more than 8,000 civilians had been killed. There were no immediate year-end totals. In 2016, UNAMA estimated that 11,418 civilians were killed.

Casualties for the ANDSF also remain "shockingly high," according to the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction [SIGAR].

In a quarterly report to Congress in August, SIGAR said that a total of 2,531 Afghan security forces were killed and 4,238 wounded in the first four months of 2017.

In an earlier report released in February, SIGAR said at least 6,785 Afghan soldiers and police had been killed in the first 10 months of 2016.

Also in February, Nicholson told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the war was at a "stalemate," and began lobbying for more troops in addition to the authorized level of 8,400.

Trump had to be convinced to go along with Nicholson's request, and it took several months.

During the presidential campaign, Trump had called the war in Afghanistan a "complete waste" of U.S. blood and treasure. In 2015, Trump told CNN, "We made a terrible mistake getting involved there in the first place."

In August this year, Trump reversed course but acknowledged that his first instinct was to withdraw from Afghanistan completely.

"My original instinct was to pull out and, historically, I like following my instincts, but all my life I've heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office," Trump said in announcing the new strategy to troops at Fort Myer, Virginia.

However, Trump was still skeptical: "Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan. But nobody knows if or when that will ever happen," he said.

Trump gave no numbers but U.S. troop levels have since been boosted to about 14,000, according to the Pentagon.

There were already more than 8,400 U.S. troops in Afghanistan because of overlaps in troop rotations and temporary deployments, and the estimated 3,000 additional troops authorized by Trump brought the troop level to about 14,000, the Pentagon said.

Pentagon officials stressed the new strategy was less about troop numbers and more about how they will be used in advising the ANDSF.

U.S. advisers will once again begin to assist Afghan forces at the "kandak," or battalion level, rather than at the corps level to enable them to call in airstrikes from the front lines.

In a November video briefing from Kabul to the Pentagon, Nicholson said the new advisory roles coupled with a stepped up air campaign were part of a two-year plan aimed at taking back territory and driving the Taliban into peace negotiations.

He estimated the Afghan government now controls about two-thirds of Afghanistan's territory. In coordination with Afghan President Ghani, the goal was to bring 80 percent of the Afghan population under government control within two years.

"Why 80 percent? Because we think that gives them [the Afghans] a critical mass where they control 80, the Taliban are driven to less than 10 percent of the population, maybe the rest is contested," he said.

The possible result would be that the Taliban would seek a peace settlement, Nicholson said.

At the United Nations on Dec. 21, Tadamichi Yamamoto, the special envoy of the Secretary General to Afghanistan, was asked how much progress had been made in 2017 towards bringing the Taliban into peace talks. "Well, not much actually," he responded.

Taliban spokesmen have repeatedly said that the group will not participate in negotiations until all U.S. and NATO forces leave Afghanistan.

On Nov. 20, Nicholson announced the first "significant" action under the new strategy had been taken in the bombing of several Taliban drug centers, using an advanced F-22 Raptor fighter and a B-52 bomber among other aircraft.

"Last night we conducted strikes in northern Helmand to hit the Taliban where it hurts, in their narcotics financing," Nicholson said. "The new authorities allow me to go after the revenue streams of the enemy."

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime said output of opium made from poppy in Afghanistan, the world's main source of heroin, showed a remarkable increase of 87 percent in 2017.

Most of the production comes from southwestern Helmand province, where 300 Marines from Task Force Southwest are currently assisting the ANDSF's 215th Corps against the Taliban.

In a Dec. 23 visit to Task Force Southwest with Gen. Robert Neller, the Marine Commandant, Military.com's Hope Hodge Seck reported Marines had used a precision airstrike to kill a Taliban shadow governor who had planned and executed improvised explosive device attacks on Marines and Afghan soldiers for well over a decade.

"Through the work of the intelligence sections as well as the operations in here, and coordination with the Afghans as well, we were able to conduct a strike on him a few days ago," said Marine Capt. Brian Hubert.

"Basically, we're very familiar with the battlespace now. So when we see the leaders we know are important there, we can kind of do a bead on them," Hubert said.

In a Dec. 31 release, Task Force Southwest said the ANDSF was engaged in conducting combat operations throughout the Marjah region of Helmand and had cleared a large number of improvised explosive devices.

"For the first time in years, Afghan forces from the police, army and National Directorate of Security are fighting side by side in Marjah, largely unopposed by the Taliban," said Col. Matthew Reid, deputy commander for Task Force Southwest.

"Historically, Marjah has always been a tough fight. The Afghans are now operating freely in areas that were untenable just a few months ago. While there is still a lot of fighting left to do, ANDSF freedom of movement in Marjah is significant, Reid said.

In his address to U.S. troops at Bagram in December, Pence said efforts assist the Kabul government in more than 16 years of war "have come at a great cost. More than 3,500 members of our allied forces have lost their lives over the past 16 years, including 2,308 Americans."

In 2017, the U.S. lost 15 service members in Afghanistan, compared to 10 in 2016. According to Operation Freedom's Sentinel and the Pentagon, 101 service members were wounded in in 2017, compared to 71 in 2016.

Of the 15 deaths in 2017, 11 were the result of combat operations and all were from the Army. Of the 11, nine were from the active duty Army, one was Army National Guard and one was Army Reserve, according to Operation Freedom's Sentinel.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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