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U.S. Commander Says Tide Could Turn In Afghan War

U.S. General John Nicholson holds a news conference after a North Atlantic Council (NAC) defense ministers meeting in Brussels on November 9.
U.S. General John Nicholson holds a news conference after a North Atlantic Council (NAC) defense ministers meeting in Brussels on November 9.

General John Nicholson, the top U.S. Army commander in Afghanistan, says the Taliban cannot win on the battlefield in Afghanistan. In an interview with RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, Nicholson sounded upbeat about the chances of pressuring the insurgents into reconciliation.

RFE/RL: In your assessment earlier this year, you said the security situation in Afghanistan was at a stalemate. Now, after the new U.S. strategy for Afghanistan was unveiled, are you moving from a stalemate to success in the country?

John Nicholson: Yes, I think the conditions are set for success. [Afghan] President [Ashraf] Ghani has said he believes we are turning a corner, and I agree. And the reason for that is the combination for U.S. commitment as demonstrated by President Donald Trump's South Asia strategy coupled with NATO’s Warsaw summit declaration and what we saw today: commitment by two dozen additional nations to add additional forces to Afghanistan. So this answers the key question right off the bat that we in the international community have the will to see this through.

U.S. policy and NATO policy are conditions-based, not time-based, and they are designed to apply pressure on the enemy so their only choice is to reconcile. The Taliban cannot win on the battlefield in the face of this pressure, and it is time for us to begin a peace negotiation. But until that happens, we will maintain military pressure; there will be diplomatic pressure on external neighbors and even social pressure at the ballot box. All of this is designed to bring the Taliban to the bargaining table.

RFE/RL: You previously said Russia was legitimizing the Taliban. What is Moscow after in Afghanistan?

Nicholson: We have common interests with Russia in Afghanistan. Number one would be counter-narcotics. Narcotics emanating from Afghanistan kill tens of thousands of Russians every year, and these narcotics are trafficked by the Taliban. Counter-terrorism, we share the interest of not seeing Daesh (eds: local name for Islamic State militants) spill out from Syria or from Afghanistan into Central Asia. This will not happen; the U.S. government and the Afghan government together are defeating Daesh inside Afghanistan. Finally, Russia has an interest in peace and stability in the region, as do we. So we think we need to work together with Russia on these shared interests as opposed to their current attempts to legitimize the Taliban and by so doing contributing to instability in the country. We [would] rather see Russia, and indeed everyone, support the legitimate government of Afghanistan.

RFE/RL: Another major question is the issue of Pakistan. How successfully are you dealing with insurgent safe havens in Pakistan?

Nicholson: From a military perspective, it is very difficult to defeat any insurgency that enjoys external safe havens. So this is an absolute must in our policy going forward. As Trump said in late August, as [Defense] Secretary [Jim] Mattis has said, as Secretary [of State Rex] Tillerson has said: We need Pakistan to work with us to shut down these safe havens and put pressure on the enemy. So we are hoping to see Pakistan do that in the coming months. These conversations are going on in private.

Thus far, we have not seen any change in Pakistan's behavior. The enemy is still operating from safe havens in Pakistan, but we hope to see over the coming months a change in that behavior. This is essential if we are going to have a peaceful resolution in Afghanistan.

RFE/RL: Lastly, in 2010-2011, at the height of the U.S. troop surge in Afghanistan, more than 100,000 U.S. troops were based in Afghanistan, but the war continued. Could the deployment of nearly 3,000 additional troops to the country bring an end to the 16-year war in the country?

Nicholson: During this 16-year war, we had 150,000 troops for a period of about 18 months. We used that period to grow the Afghan security forces to their current size of over 320,000. Now the 320,000 are being enabled by the 15,000. It doesn't require 150,000 troops to help 320,000 Afghans prosecute this war.

What we have seen is that we are able to work by, with, and through the Afghan security forces to accomplish our ends. It doesn't require a large number of troops; it doesn't require NATO to go back to a combat role. Afghans are on the fight. They are willing to fight for their country. All they ask for is our help and more time to achieve their ultimate success.