In a press briefing yesterday that seemed detached from the reality on the ground in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, the commander of Resolute Support and US Forces Afghanistan said the “the strategy is working” and “advancing us towards reconciliation” with the Taliban.
Nicholson briefed Pentagon reporters remotely from Afghanistan. The call was abruptly cut off, presumably due to technical difficulties, as the Pentagon press corps grilled Nicholson on the efficacy of the Afghan strategy.
In his opening statement, Nicholson claimed there was “progress on the peace process” with the Taliban. Yet again, he mischaracterized statements by the Taliban to claim it is willing to negotiate in good faith to end the conflict.
Nicholson described the Taliban’s assaults on Farah and Ghazni cities as a failure, and never addresses the underlying causes of each attack – the Taliban’s ability to control areas outside the cities. He takes credit for the Taliban’s rout of the Islamic State’s forces in Jawzjan. He claims there has been progress in convincing Pakistan to end its support of the Taliban. And he uses Taliban body counts as a measure of success, and then says enemy casualties are not a proper metric.
“The strategy is working,” because reconciliation
Nicholson, in response to a question about the current Afghan strategy, said that it “is working.” In a cursory reading of the press briefing, it is clear Nicholson hinges his opinion that the strategy is working because, as he claims, it is “advancing us towards reconciliation.”
“So — so I think we’re — we’re seeing the strategy is fundamentally working and advancing us towards reconciliation, even though it may not be playing out the way that we anticipated,” Nicholson said.
“I believe the South Asia Strategy is the right approach. And now we see that approach delivering progress on reconciliation that we had not seen previously. And I think that was because we clearly communicated to the enemy they could not wait us out,” he continued.
The US strategy hinges on demonstrating a longterm commitment to Afghanistan, defeating the Taliban militarily, and forcing it to the negotiating table. Yet the Taliban has been anything but defeated militarily; Taliban controlled and contested territory remains unchanged since the US changed its strategy, and the Taliban has been dealing Afghan forces major blows on the battlefield, despite Nicholson’s Pollyannish assessment of the current fight. Failing to defeat the Taliban, the US government has signaled to the Taliban that it is desperate for a negotiated settlement and wants to end the Afghan war.
Nicholson claimed that the reconciliation process is working and is based on two things: letters released by the Taliban’s leader in Feb. and Aug that he says lays out a path to peace; and a short, uncoordinated ceasefire at the end of June.
“We’ve also seen a clear progression in the Taliban’s public statements, from their 14 February letter to the American people to the recent Eid al-Adha message, where Emir Hibatullah acknowledged for the first time that negotiations will, quote, ‘ensure an end to the war,’ end quote.”
Astonishingly, Nicholson described the Feb. 14 letter as one of two “peace offers,” when it is anything but. The other peace offer was by Afghan president Arshaf Ghani, which the Taliban has flatly ignored.
Nicholson’s reading of the two letters is wrong. In the first letter, the Taliban said the only acceptable outcome in Afghanistan is for the US to quit so it can restore the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the official name of its government. In the second letter, from last week, Mullah Habaitullah again demanded the withdrawal of American forces and criticized religious gatherings for ruling that the conflict is a civil war between Afghans. In both letters, the Taliban says it will negotiate only with the US, and not the Afghan government, and only to get US and foreign troops out of the country. Additionally, the Taliban branded the Afghan government as corrupt and illegitimate, said it will not negotiate peace or share power with it, and that the return of the Islamic Emirate is the only acceptable outcome. [See LWJ reports, Taliban still intent on ruling Afghanistan after ‘peaceful’ message to US, Taliban leader demands US withdraw from Afghanistan, blasts government as ‘corrupt regime’, Analysis: Taliban will halt attacks on Afghan government for 3 days, and Analysis: A misbegotten ‘ceasefire’ in Afghanistan.]
Nicholson also claimed the first ceasefire, an overlapping and uncoordinated 3 day long halt in fighting at the end of June, was unprecedented in the 17 years of war in Afghanistan. Yet the Taliban did not respond to the Afghan government’s offer to extend it. Instead, the Taliban ramped up its attacks on Afghan forces, invaded Ghazni City, and overran multiple district centers and military bases. The Taliban has not responded to the current offer of a ceasefire.
Taliban “failed” in Farah and Ghazni cities, and body counts
In perhaps one of the most tone-deaf interpretations of the Taliban’s operations, Nicholson claimed that the Taliban incursions into and the brief seizure of the provincial capitals of Farah and Ghazni cites this year proves the group has “failed.”
“Now, militarily speaking, they made two attempts this year to seize provincial capitals. They both have failed,” Nicholson remarked.
“The Taliban are fighting in order to increase their leverage in the negotiation and to maintain their cohesion,” he then claimed
This is a remarkable misreading of insurgency warfare. First, the Taliban clearly never intended to hold either city for an extended period of time; it did not commit a large enough force to do so. The Taliban sent a message to the Afghan people: your government is weak and cannot defend you. In addition to demonstrating the government’s weakness, the Taliban instilled fear on Afghans living in areas under government control, and benefited from looting military and police bases and outposts.
Second, there is zero evidence that the Taliban attacked either city “to increase their leverage in the negotiations.” The Taliban, in a display of strength, has been launching large scale assaults on cities since 2015.
Nicholson then used body counts to show that the Taliban lost during its assault on Ghazni City, which ended less than two weeks ago.
“But ultimately, they were driven out of the city, losing more fighters in the end than the ANDSF,” he stated. Later, he claimed “they [the Taliban] were driven out [of Ghazni] with higher casualties than they inflicted.”
Oddly, Nicholson, perhaps realizing that he was making an argument that enemy casualties equal success, an argument that US generals wrongly made in Vietnam, he backtracked.
“Taliban casualties are high and not — and we don’t talk about casualties, because that’s — that’s not a — that’s not a proper metric, I think, given our past history,” he said.
Yet, Resolute Support, which Nicholson commands, has indeed used body counts as a metric of success. At the end of July, Resolute Support used this metric to claim the Afghan military is having success against the Taliban, al Qaeda, and the Islamic State since the end of the Eid ceasefire. The claim that 1,700 insurgents were killed during a three week period was based on the Afghan military, which is notorious for inflating enemy casualties. [See LWJ report, NATO command touts body count of ‘Taliban irreconcilables’.]
Additionally, Nicholson discounted the Taliban’s mastery of rural areas and even wrongly claimed that attacks in these areas “fail.”
“So, the other attacks that you referred to are done in more remote areas. And what we see is in the majority of those cases, those attacks fail. Where those attacks are successful in seizing a district center, typically the district centers are retaken. There have been a few that have fallen to the Taliban this year,” he stated.
“But the — the point is they — can they conduct attacks? Yes. Can they hold what they take? No.”
Except, the Taliban is able to hold ground, and routinely is successful in its operations in rural areas. The Taliban controls at least 48 of Afghanistan 407 districts and contests another 197, according to a study by FDD’s Long War Journal. Resolute Support claims the Taliban controls around 11 districts, but these numbers are unreliable. Recently, in Ghazni province, The New York Times discovered that the districts centers in five districts under Taliban control were moved to Ghazni City in order to hide the fact that they were indeed Taliban controlled. [See LWJ report, Resolute Support obscures status of 7 Ghazni districts as 3 more fall to Taliban.]
Nicholson later admits that the Taliban controls a significant portion of the Afghan population. To do this, the Taliban must control territory. Nicholson admits this number hasn’t changed since the Afghan strategy was launched last year.
“There has not been a significant change one way or the other with respect to population control,” he said.
Nicholson claims credit for defeat of Islamic State in Jawzjan, which was a Taliban victory
Nicholson’s positions on the so-called peace process and the Taliban’s current offensive is troubling. His view on the recent defeat of the Islamic State in Jawzjan province is delusional.
At the end of July, the Taliban assaulted the Islamic State Khorasan province’s stronghold in the province of Jawzjan. The Taliban completely routed the Islamic State, killing more than 200 fighters and capturing scores more. The remaining Islamic State fighters, more than 250 of them, then surrendered to the Afghan government.
Astonishingly, Nicholson cast this as a victory for the Afghan government.
“I want to highlight a recent success since we last talked, when over 250 ISIS-K fighters and their family members surrendered to the Afghan security forces in Jowzjan, which eliminated one of the three pockets of ISIS in Afghanistan,” Nicholson claimed.
Nicholson should be concerned that the Taliban was able to mass its forces in Jawzjan and accomplish what the Afghan security forces could not do. Instead, he credited the Afghan security forces with a victory it did not earn.
In fact, the Afghan government’s treatment of the Islamic State fighters has enraged many Afghans, including members of the military. The Islamic State fighters were evacuated using helicopters, while Afghan soldiers besieged at bases could not receive critical resupply. Government officials spoke of amnesty for fighters who brutally murdered, raped, and enslaved civilians in Jawzjan.
Pakistan: “what we’re seeing is an improvement.” Or not
In yet another remarkable and disjointed statement, Nicholson said that he has seen “an improvement” in Pakistan’s behavior towards Pakistan.
“But we are encouraged that what we’re seeing is an improvement in — in some levels between Afghanistan and Pakistan. And this has been a result of President Ghani’s outreach to Pakistan with the APAPPS, the — the — the improving — not — not where we’d like to see it be, but improving coordination between the militaries. And again, the — the strong demand of the Afghan people for peace,” Nicholson said in a response to a question about Pakistan’s role in the insurgency.
But then Nicholson backtracked and said that Pakistan is still supporting the Taliban.
“The Taliban enjoy freedom — freedom of action there. They — they occasionally come over from there, casualties are taken back there. These are things we are concerned about,” he said.
Taliban’s support for the Taliban and other jihadist groups is well documented. While President Trump talked tough on Pakistan, the US government, other than turing off the spigot of military aid, has done little to force Pakistan to change its behavior.
A troubling assessment
Nicholson’s briefing paints a picture of Afghanistan that does not comport with the facts on the ground. He does not seem to have a grasp on the state of the fight, and his reading of the political situation and negotiations with the Taliban is incorrect. The press, perhaps sensing that Nicholson was struggling to put the best face on Afghanistan as he prepared to relinquish his command, asked tough questions. The press conference was cut off in what appears to be a technical issue, however it appears there was no attempt to reestablish the link.
Nicholson will be turning his command over to General Austin Miller, who during his senate testimony, refused to define the Taliban as an enemy of America. It remains to be seen if Miller, like all of the generals who have preceded him, will continue to provide rosy assessments of Afghanistan as the country continues to slide into anarchy.