Outgoing US Commander Continues Tradition of Hailing Progress in Afghanistan

Gen. John Nicholson,  the top American commander in Afghanistan, speaks to reporters Wednesday, March 14, 2018 at Bagram air base north of Kabul, Afghanistan.  Nicholson spoke about prospects for peace talks with the Taliban. (AP Photos/Robert Burns)
Gen. John Nicholson, the top American commander in Afghanistan, speaks to reporters Wednesday, March 14, 2018 at Bagram air base north of Kabul, Afghanistan. Nicholson spoke about prospects for peace talks with the Taliban. (AP Photos/Robert Burns)

Outgoing U.S. commander Gen. John Nicholson today joined the succession of U.S. leaders who have predicted that the end of war in Afghanistan is in sight, despite the Taliban's ability to launch large-scale attacks and wreak chaos on major cities.

Nicholson, who will soon step down as commander of Operation Resolute Support and U.S. Forces - Afghanistan, said today that over the past three months he has seen significant progress in the peace process between the Afghan forces and the Taliban.

In June, Afghan forces and the Taliban participated in the first-ever ceasefire since the war began in 2001. Nicholson said the Afghan people's response to the three-day event was "frankly overwhelming."

"This first ceasefire really unleashed the Afghan people's desire for peace ... on really a national and unprecedented scale," Nicholson told a group of defense reporters at the Pentagon.

Nicholson credited the recent progress to the Trump administration's strategy for dealing with South Asia that was launched about a year ago.

"I believe the strategy is working," he said. "Within six months, we have two peace offers on the table -- an open letter from the Taliban to the American people and [Afghan] President Ghani's peace offer.

"There will be ups and downs, there will be leap-a-heads, there will be frustrations, there will be two steps forward one step back from time to time, but the process has started and it wouldn't have happened without the South Asia strategy."

Nicholson's confident stance on operations in Afghanistan mirrors the positive assessments on Afghanistan that many U.S. leaders have made over the 17 years of war, only to see conditions deteriorate into stalemate.

In 2011, Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, praised Gen. David Petraeus for being "instrumental in turning the tide in Afghanistan," the Washington Post reported. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., added that Petraeus's leadership is "turning around the war in Afghanistan."

In 2014, the Pentagon delivered a report to Congress outlining the progress in Afghanistan.

The Afghan national security forces "have done an exceptional job being in the lead in providing security for not one but two elections and put the Taliban on their heels during this fighting season," then-Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said, citing the "Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan."

"The Taliban continued to test the ANSF, but were unable to hold any significant terrain and were consistently overmatched when engaged by ANSF, sometimes enabled by coalition air and intelligence support," he said.

In July of 2017, Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that Afghan leaders have a new level of confidence about the future of their country.

"I haven't seen the degree of optimism in Afghanistan prior to this, [and] that includes my entire time there," said Dunford, who commanded the International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces Afghanistan from February 2013 to August 2014.

But as they have done in the past, the Taliban continue to demonstrate their prowess on the battlefield.

On Aug. 10, Taliban forces launched a major assault on Ghazni, a city located within 100 miles of Kabul.

The fighting was fierce during the four-day battle. U.S. Air Force aircraft and U.S. Army AH-64 Apache gunships had to be called in to reinforce Afghan forces.

"There was a tough fight; it lasted about four days, and then they were driven out with higher casualties than they inflicted," Nicholson said. "They failed to take the prison, they failed to take the governor's palace, they failed to take the police station they were after, so they didn't seize their objectives.

"I acknowledge that the Taliban can launch attacks in cities. ... Do those attacks succeed in gaining and holding new ground? No."

A week after the Ghazni fight ended, Afghan President Ghani offered a second ceasefire on Aug. 19, which Nicholson said could continue until Nov. 20.

"So far we have not heard if the Taliban will accept or reject the ceasefire," Nicholson said.

Nicholson conceded that the past statements of optimism on Afghanistan that many leaders before him have expressed may have been premature.

"We certainly wanted to see this war be over many years ago," he said, adding that the long-term, U.S. presence in Afghanistan has been necessary.

"We are protecting the homeland; Al-Qaeda, Islamic state and 19 other terrorist groups are here," Nicholson said. "Our presence here is keeping pressure on them ... The Afghans are doing the fighting, they are leading the fight."

The Afghan air force is now doing over half the airstrikes in the country, Nicholson said. The U.S. train, advise and assist mission has helped to produce 45 companies of elite Afghan commandos, a number that will be doubled by next year, he added.

"So we are seeing progress in terms of the Afghan capabilities; this is not a purely U.S. or coalition fight."

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

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