In 2018 the Resolute Support Mission has the size of force needed to move onto what the commander, General John Nicholson, has called "a path to a win.” His call to increase the force to around 15,000 troops from 39 partner and allied nations in the RS mission was based on a careful plan of what is needed to fracture the Taliban, and leave them with no option but a negotiated end to the conflict.
But how can this small force prevail, where an international force some ten times the size did not defeat the Taliban in 2010? Unlike that previous mission, this force does not engage in combat, but is here to stand up competent Afghan forces – training, advising and assisting, but not fighting alongside them.
Better Afghan forces
One answer to the question "what’s different now” is that Afghan forces are far better. It takes a long time to build a capable army in depth, and for individuals to mature into key roles in particular at the level of sergeants and corporals who are the backbone of any force. Even with America’s resources, it took ten years for the U.S. army to fully restore itself after the Vietnam War. In Afghanistan, commitment to the building of a professional force did not really get under way until around 2008 – so the new force should be just at the peak of that process now.
"Afghans are leading this fight,” General Nicholson said. "Afghans are not asking us to do their fighting for them, or for the international community. We stand with them.” Afghan troops are increasingly able to go on the offensive and stay on the offensive, reinforcing battlefield success. In 2017 for the first time, there were offensive maneuvers taking place across all six Corps zones, momentum that continued through the winter for the first time – even while Afghan forces became much more competent at maintenance in order to sustain the fight.
Undefeated Special Forces
Afghan Special Forces are the spearhead of the Afghan National Army’s new capability. They are doubling in size and have never been defeated. In recognition of their central role, they now have a separate Corps-level command. Increasingly they operate autonomously, without foreign support.
The Kabul unit CRU 222 have been particularly effective at neutralizing the threat of complex attacks in the capital, involving multiple suicide bombers and armed assault, changing the calculus of urban terrorism to give the government the advantage. CRU 222 are on five minutes notice to deploy and have defeated several attacks with no loss of civilian life. One attack on a prominent TV station was defeated so quickly that the station was back on air the same afternoon.
Independent air force
At the same time independent Afghan air power is being stood up for the first time in a generation. Afghan A-29 Super Tucano ground attack aircraft, and small highly mobile MD-530 helicopters carry out daily strikes, their targets coordinated by Afghan forward controllers on the ground – a technical enabling role that until recently needed to be done by U.S. troops.
And Afghan pilots are now training to fly U.S.-supplied UH-60 Black Hawks, a potential game-changer. By the year 2023, 159 Black Hawks will be available to the Afghan Air Force – a far larger fleet of faster and more agile helicopters than the ageing Russian Mi-17s they replace, and they are easier to maintain.
Alongside this offensive capability, the Afghan Air Force has increased ability to evacuate casualties by air, increasing the confidence of forces on the ground, as well as do their own heavy lifting with C-130 transport planes.
Generational change in leadership
President Ghani has pushed through institutional reforms which are transforming the culture of the armed forces.
Both the Ministry of Defence and Interior have new reformist ministers; five out of six Afghan Corps commanders were replaced in 2017; hundreds of senior officers were investigated for corruption, with many now behind bars; biometric scanning of every soldier is ending the corruption of salaries being claimed for non-existent "ghost soldiers;” and, most importantly, a new reform lowering the military pension age is ending the careers of the last of the officers recruited during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. More than 2000 senior officers are being retired, relieving a promotion logjam for new younger talent.
Training down to kandaks
This new force is increasingly able to operate independently. But another answer to the question "what’s different in 2018” is that the RS mission is now configured to offer more support at a lower level of the Afghan army than at any time since it took over from the ISAF combat mission at the start of 2015. The train, advise, and assist mission will provide daily tactical support down to the basic Afghan fighting unit, the kandak. Most of this new capability will come from specially trained instructors in U.S. Security Force Assistance Brigades.
New authorities to hunt down the Taliban
The new U.S. South Asia policy, unveiled by President Trump in August, 2017, serves as the final element that gives confidence that 2018 will see a change in the war’s direction.
There are two key elements to this policy:
First, the presence of international troops will be based on conditions on the ground, not an arbitrary timetable. This means that for the first time the Taliban can no longer wait out the war. The RS Mission will be here until the job is done.
Second, the policy changes the rules of engagement so that, alongside RS, the separate U.S. combat mission, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, can pursue the Taliban and other insurgents more aggressively. These new authorities are a key component in the Taliban’s failure in 2017 to threaten provincial capitals. The Taliban continue to terrorize parts of the Afghan countryside, but are under increasing pressure. The air campaign to bomb drug laboratories and support networks, which began in November, is cutting into their main revenue streams.
With the war in Syria and Iraq winding down, more air assets have been available to use in Afghanistan, increasing the capacity of what General Nicholson has called a "tidal wave of air power.”
All of this military effort is designed to force the Taliban to the negotiating table. Another answer to the question "what’s different this time,” is that in the leadership of the National Unity Government – President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah – RS has a reliable and able partner, both in war and in building the new nation.
In 2017 this government delivered the only successful peace deal in nearly forty years of war in Afghanistan when Gulbuddin Hekmatyar came down from the mountains and ended his alliance with the Taliban. The government now has a coherent plan to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, building a national consensus that reconciliation is the only way to end the conflict. At the same time, they are engaging regional neighbors in a series of inter-governmental meetings under the "Kabul Process,” leading towards agreements that none of Afghanistan’s neighbors should back cross-border terrorism.
The government of Afghanistan’s regional engagement is also in pursuit of Afghan economic advancement, turning its location on the crossroads between South and Central Asia to its advantage, as in the days of the Silk Road.
President Ghani is undertaking a rigorous and methodical reform program, is resilient in the face of political opposition, and, while charting a path to peace, has made major strides towards a stronger economic future. His regional diplomatic outreach has opened a secure trade route to the sea for the first time through Iran, secured major Chinese and Indian investment, and greatly improved access to cheap electricity in new deals with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to the north. Extending new power capacity across the country will help to stabilize the country and entrench democracy in parliamentary and presidential elections over the next two years.
The advantage of this growing economic confidence and wider diplomatic and regional engagement is that it gives Afghanistan trading options. As Afghanistan grows less dependent on Pakistan, it will be easier for the U.S. administration to put pressure on Pakistan to reduce their support for the Taliban. As vice president Pence said on his Christmas trip to visit troops in Afghanistan, ‘Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with the United States, and much to lose by continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists.’
So what can 15,000 troops do that 150,000 could not do ten years ago? They can support what Afghanistan is now doing for itself. Through the growth of the increasingly professional Afghan security forces, the leadership and reforms of the national unity government, and the support of the international community, Afghanistan’s future from 2018 and beyond looks much brighter than it has for a long time.