New flexibility results in year of momentum

By Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., commander, U.S. Forces-Afghanistan and Resolute SupportSeptember 30, 2016

As we mark the 15th anniversary of the U.S. Army's presence in Afghanistan, our mission is as significant for U.S. national security and the protection of our homeland as it has ever been. We are working with our Afghan partners to prevent multiple terrorist organizations from realizing their transregional ambitions. We are also building an enduring partnership with the Afghan government to establish what will be a critical regional counterterrorism (CT) platform well into the future.

It has been almost two years since the end of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM and the commencement of two simultaneous and well-defined missions: Operation FREEDOM'S SENTINEL (OFS) and the NATO Resolute Support Mission (RSM). Under OFS, U.S. forces conduct a CT mission against al Qaida (AQ), the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-K) and other terrorist and violent extremist organizations operating in Afghanistan. RSM, a continuation of the Alliance's largest and longest running military operation, is the successor to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission and is focused on training, advising, and assisting (TAA) the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) in order to build their capabilities and long-term sustainability.

Our U.S. and NATO efforts are complementary. A capable and sustainable ANDSF is the foundation for developing our Central Asia South Asia (CASA) regional CT platform and denying sanctuary for terrorists in Afghanistan. Regionally, our CASA CT approach is anchored on the development of the Afghan Special Security Forces (ASSF) and the ANDSF as enduring partners to maintain pressure on the terrorists and extremists in the region. The NATO TAA mission enables ANDSF development and credibility, and provides for our long term CASA CT efforts.

Of the twelve major enemy groups that operate in Afghanistan, nine of them (AQ, the Haqqani Network, IS-K, Lashkar-e Tayyiba, Tahrik-e Taliban Pakistani (TTP), Tariq Gidar Group (TGG), Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, al Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent, and Jamaat Dawa Quran) are designated foreign terrorist organizations (FTO) by the Department of State. While not a designated FTO, the Taliban remains the main facilitator to many of the other groups' operations, directly threatening U.S. and Coalition personnel and the Afghan government.

The death of Taliban Supreme Leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour in a U.S. strike on 21 May 2016 significantly disrupted the Taliban. This strike gave a huge psychological boost to the Afghans and sent a clear message to the Taliban--that they will not win militarily and the time for reconciliation is now. Further reinforcing this message is the U.S. CT strike which killed Umar Khalifa, a prominent TTP commander and head of TGG, responsible for the attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, Pakistan that left more than 150 dead, mostly children. Leaders of other terrorist organizations and insurgent groups have certainly taken notice.


In order to further enable Afghan success and provide U.S. forces more flexibility in supporting ANDSF on the ground and in the air, President Obama approved enhanced authorities for U.S. forces. The four main categories of U.S. authorities include: force protection, counterterrorism (CT), "in-extremis," and "strategic effects." The force protection authority allows for the right to self-defense against an attack or imminent attack for all U.S., Coalition and Afghan personnel. The CT authority permits U.S. CT forces to target AQ and IS-K. When designated by the Commander, United States Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A), the "in-extremis" authority allows U.S. forces to support ANDSF with combat enablers to prevent a strategic defeat. Lastly, the "strategic effects" authority permits the support of Afghan forces in offensive operations to achieve significant operational or strategic effects. These U.S. authorities are used as required in support of our Afghan partners and allow the Commander, USFOR-A, to help shape and set the conditions for the ANDSF to seize the initiative and take the fight to the enemy. USFOR-A exercises these authorities on almost a daily basis, providing combat enablers in support of ANDSF to achieve strategic effects in areas which are key to their national campaign plan.

In July 2016, Heads of State and Government of RSM nations, and the President and Chief Executive (CE) of Afghanistan convened a NATO Summit in Warsaw to reaffirm the international community's commitment to a safe, secure and self-sustainable Afghanistan. Leaders of the international community made it clear that Afghanistan will not stand alone and, thus far, thirty-nine NATO Allies and partners have committed more than 12,700 troops to sustain RSM beyond 2016. Some 30 nations have also pledged more than $800 million annually to sustain Afghan security forces through 2020. Combined with the requested U.S. commitment of $3.5 billion and $500 million from Afghanistan, the total FY17 contribution is $4.8 billion towards the ANDSF. The positive outcomes of the Warsaw Summit, coupled with President Obama's announcement on July 6, 2016 to maintain approximately 8,450 troops in Afghanistan beyond 2016, bolstered Afghan confidence and resolve. The Alliance is harnessing the momentum generated by this high-level of commitment to optimize our NATO TAA and U.S. CT missions going forward.

The long-term strategy of a viable ANDSF capable of securing the nation and denying terrorist safe havens is showing progress in many ways. This year saw advancement in the development of systems that lay the foundation for lasting ANDSF success. Planning, programming, budgeting, and execution; transparency, accountability, and oversight; rule of law; force generation; force sustainment; command and control; intelligence; and strategic communications are all essential functions to the Resolute Support campaign in which the ANDSF are making progress. Afghanistan also continues to make strides in fighting corruption, preventing the involvement of children in armed conflict, and gender integration throughout the force. In the words of President Ghani, our "…legacy will not be guns and ammunition, but systems and processes."

Through the continued support of the international community, the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) has grown into a regional partner. President Ghani and CE Abdullah, through the National Unity Government (NUG) agreement of 2014, provided the requisite stability and leadership to achieve success on the battlefield and to reform the government. In 2016, key vacancies for the Minister of Defense (MoD), Minister of Interior (MoI), and the Director, National Directorate of Security (NDS) were filled. The NUG is establishing important bi-lateral international relationships, especially with China, Saudi Arabia, and India. They are also developing relationships with Iran, Russia, and Pakistan, who have played less positive roles. The NUG has made important improvements in countering corruption, gender inclusion throughout all of the Afghan Security Institutions (ASI), and developing the framework for enduring partnerships with both NATO and the U.S. All of these long-term efforts have set the stage for assuring international recommitment at the Brussels Donor's Conference in October. Domestically, electoral reform and setting a calendar for parliamentary elections remain an important priority.

A significant advancement in 2016 was the development and implementation of an Afghan National Campaign Plan which strives for eventual reconciliation with belligerents. The strategy details security priorities over the next five years, and revolves around defeating enemy forces while protecting critical centers and key infrastructure. This strategy focuses their efforts and enables them to employ their forces more efficiently and effectively. Nested within this five-year outlook is a Sustainable Security Strategy built around a fight-hold-disrupt construct, operationalized with their 2016 campaign, Operation SHAFAQ (Dawn), prioritizing ANDSF resources at the national level and incorporating main and supporting efforts. This is the first time that the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP), through their regional corps and police zone headquarters, conducted national-level cross-pillar planning, preparations, and execution of major operations with minimal Coalition assistance.

The results of their 2016 campaign, Operation SHAFAQ (Dawn), has been encouraging with the successful defense of Kunduz in March; the clearance of major ground lines of communication in Helmand and Uruzgan, and the reduction of IS-K in Nangarhar. The ANDSF have been on the offensive for most of the year, gaining ground on the insurgents, and gaining the confidence of the population. While ANDSF is suffering high casualty rates, they remain focused on their campaign strategy, refuse to allow the enemy to draw them away from their main effort, and remain in control of major population centers, provincial capitals, major transit routes and almost all districts. Their continued success in this campaign is a tribute to their courage, tenacity and resilience.

The ANDSF have made major strides this year in the integration of key capabilities into ANDSF operations. Critical enablers such as close air support, intelligence, and C2 have progressed with the delivery of the MD-530 helicopter and A-29 ground attack aircraft; the ScanEagle intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) system; and the improved Afghan National Threat Intelligence Center, which fuses intelligence from the MoD, MoI, and NDS at the national level. Capable of employing these enablers, the Afghan Special Security Forces (ASSF) continues to be the best special operations force in the region, conducting up to 80% of their operations independently. Finally, the Afghan Air Force (AAF) is rapidly gaining capability through close, frequent TAA, adding air-ground integration and a National Targeting Process into operations. The ANDSF will continue to refine these systems and processes as they enter their Winter Campaign.


Establishing the framework for a viable CT platform is a major objective for 2017. As part of our adjustment to conduct the U.S. CT mission, support to the NATO TAA mission will evolve in the coming year. Currently, advisory efforts are at four of the six corps and police zone levels, in addition to the ASSF and the AAF. In 2017, we will advise all six corps and police zones to provide critical support where needed to capitalize on the success and continued implementation of the sustainable security strategy.

In order to support GIRoA in making progress towards reconciliation with the insurgents, the ANDSF will keep pressure on the enemy through operational improvements. Developments in the AAF, focused ASSF operations, reduced employment of checkpoints, and established operational readiness cycles to build combat power improve with each year. New measures, such as the development of a National Mission Brigade that uses ASSF and mobile conventional forces to provide a quick strike capability, are in progress and will enable the ANDSF to set the operational stage, placing GIRoA and the ANDSF in a position of strength for reconciliation.

Our commitment to the Afghans remains steadfast, and President Obama's decision and the results of the Warsaw Summit made it clear that Afghanistan will enjoy continued strong international support. NATO and the United States have a strategic partner in Afghanistan who is willing to fight and sacrifice for its own security. While the AAF and ANP require further development to achieve sustainable capability and capacity, other pillars of the ANDSF have made strong progress in providing security for the entire country. Maintaining 8,400 U.S. troops allows for continued strong TAA as part of the RSM mission and sends a clear message of support to our Afghan and Coalition partners. Increased authorities enable U.S. support to offensively minded Afghan forces on the ground and in the air, and allow for a continued robust CT mission. This sets the conditions for the long-term success of our CT efforts in the CASA region. Equally important, our unwavering dedication sends an unequivocal message to the enemies of peace and stability in Afghanistan that they will not win militarily. The ultimate answer is reconciliation. By maintaining our commitment, we honor the legacy of our fallen comrades, and all others who have sacrificed in the cause of a secure and stable Afghanistan. As President Obama noted, we honor them with our resolve to carry on the mission for which they gave their last full measure of devotion. In this way, we will advance our national security objectives and protect the American people by giving our Afghan partners the very best opportunity to succeed.

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