U.S. To Deploy Troops To Combat Areas In Afghanistan, Reversing Policy
Reversing what is supposed to be a withdrawal of troops after nearly fifteen years or war, deploying troops to the southern region of Afghanistan to help the Afghan military with a renewed Taliban threat:
KABUL, Afghanistan — The United States Army will deploy hundreds of soldiers to the southern Afghan province of Helmand, where government forces have been pushed to the brink by Taliban militants, a military spokesman said Tuesday.
It will be the largest deployment of American troops outside major bases in Afghanistan since the end of the NATO combat mission in 2014. Though the military insists that the soldiers will not take active combat roles,American Special Operations forces have increasingly been drawn into the fighting in Helmand as one important district after another has fallen or been threatened by Taliban insurgents.
Col. Michael T. Lawhorn, a spokesman for the United States military in Afghanistan, said in a statement that the new deployment would provide protection for the current Special Operations troops in Helmand and give extra support and training for the 215th Corps of the Afghan National Army. Afghan forces in Helmand have taken heavy casualties in recent months and have been cut off by the Taliban in many places.
“Our mission,” Colonel Lawhorn said, “remains the same: to train, advise, and assist our Afghan counterparts, and not to participate in combat operations.”
He would not detail the number of troops or the unit involved in the deployment, citing Pentagon policy. But a senior American military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss operational matters, said the unit being sent to Helmand, the Second Battalion, 87th Infantry, was slightly smaller than the usual battalion size of 700 to 800 soldiers. On Monday, The Guardian newspaper reported that up to a battalion would be sent to Helmand.
The new troops are replacing another unit that was already in Afghanistan, the official said, and were not adding to the total number of American troops in the country, which stands at roughly 9,800 service members.
The official could not say where the deployment would be based within Helmand, but said they said that the problems in the province demanded the attention of American and Afghan commanders.
“Certainly Helmand is the diciest place in Afghanistan right now, the place where ANSF have had the most setbacks from without and within,” the official said, using the abbreviation for the Afghan National Security Forces, meaning the army and police. “It’s part of what matters most right now or the future of the country.”
The additional American soldiers would be “doing some retraining, re-equipping and advising” for the troubled Afghan 215th Army Corps, the official added.
Alarm has risen in Kabul and Washington as a resurgent Taliban insurgency has pushed government forces to the edge. Faced with the possible collapse of the the Afghan Army and police in Helmand, the Pentagon began ratcheting up the role of American Special Operations forces there last autumn, stepping up air attacks and putting more advisers on the ground. One American was killed and two were wounded there in early January as Afghan and American troops sought to break a Taliban encirclement of the Marja district.
Some Afghan officials have advocated a bigger role for American troops for months now.
The numbers people are talking about “aren’t enough, 700 or so troops cannot solve such a big problem,” as Helmand is a very big province, said Lt. Gen. Rahmatullah Rauofi, a former Afghan Army general who now commands the Afghan Border Police.
He nonetheless welcomed the American decision to support the Afghan National Security Forces in the south, saying,”they’ll be equipped with advanced weaponry, they’ll have better air support and they can fight well alongside the A.N.S.F. They’ll inflict extensive pressure on the enemy.”
“If similar action were taken in other volatile provinces,” he said, “it would be a blow to the enemy and terrorists.”
Helmand has been besieged by Taliban militants since the NATO and United States combat mission ended in 2014, and it has long been one of the most contested parts of the country. The Helmand opium fields are also among the most productive in the world, making the province an economic prize disputed by the insurgents, criminal gangs and corrupt government officials alike. It shares a porous border with Pakistan, where the Taliban’s leaders are based, adding to its strategic value.
The Helmand police and the 215th Army Corps have been ground down, with morale plummeting and desertions increasing as underfed, undertrained and underequipped units fight on without rest. In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee last week, Gen. John F. Campbell, the outgoing chief of NATO and United States forces in Afghanistan, expressed concern about the Afghan military. “Ultimately,” he said, “Afghanistan has not achieved an enduring level of security and stability that justifies reduction in our support in 2016.”
There are about 9,800 American troops in Afghanistan, a number that was supposed to fall to 5,500 by the end of 2016. That drawdown now appears to be in doubt, as Lt. Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., who will replace General Campbell, told senators in January that he wanted to “re-look” at the military’s needs in the country, considering “what is necessary, what amount of capability is necessary given the current conditions.”
From this article, it’s unclear whether the troops being sent to Helmand are among those still located in Afghanistan, or a new batallion that is being rotated in from the United States. The Guardian, however, reports that the troops in question will be selected from among those already deployed in Afghanistan and stationed at one of the bases in or around Kabul. In either case, while the Pentagon is making clear that this new deployment will not actually increase the total number of troops in Afghanistan, it is yet another reason to doubt that the current deadline of year’s end for the withdrawal of the vast majority of the remaining U.S. forces will actually be met.
The most recent indication that the timetable would not be met came in October when President Obama announced that the withdrawal of U.S. forces would be halted due to the ongoing threat posed by a resurgent Taliban in several Afghan provinces, but the limitations on the withdrawal of American forces go back long before then. In November 2014, shortly after President Obama announced the new American strategy that is ultimately supposed to lead to the withdrawal of forces, it was announced that the pace of withdrawal would be slowed and that American troops would continue to be involved in combat operations. When Afghan President Asraf Ghani visited the United States early last year, amid reports of increased Taliban activity, it was announced that the pace of withdrawal would be slowed even further. Finally, in April we learned that American forces were involved in more than just the counterterrorism operations that President Obama’s original plan had said they would be limited to, In other words, as the security situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated the White House has slowly but surely changed its plan to lengthen the time that American forces will stay in Afghanistan even though it’s not entirely clear that any of the changes to the original plan announced by the White House will actually accomplish anything in terms of changing the nature of the security situation on the ground. Moreover, the fact that these moves tend to demonstrate that the U.S. still needs to come to the aid of the Afghan military in its fight against the Taliban does not inspire very much confidence in the ability of that institution to ensure the security of that country or to stop the Taliban, al Qaeda, or ISIS from establishing new zones of control inside Afghanistan in the future.
At this rate, it seem inevitable that we’ll reach a point some time this year when the President will announce, no doubt with frequent use of the word “regretfully” or some similar word, that the previous commitment to remove most American troops by December 31st cannot be met. That announcement will likely come either early in the year or after the election so as to minimize the political impact, but it is the inevitable next step in all of the delays to withdrawal that the Administration has announced over the past fourteen months. More likely than not, the President will simply punt the matter into the future, perhaps by delaying the “official” withdrawal date for six months or so, thus leaving the matter for the next President to decide. All of this will occur contemporaneously with likely future increases in American commitments in Iraq and Syria related to the fight against ISIS, thus leaving quite a lot on the plate for the next President that could very well significantly distract them from being about to carry out any domestic agenda.
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