Rather than waiting for this year’s fighting season to start, the Afghan forces went to the enemy first, Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford told reporters as he headed to Europe after three days in Afghanistan.
Dunford cited the Afghan forces’ offensive posture and improved capabilities, notably in air power, as possible reasons why the level of violence since the Ramadan observance ended earlier this month has been lower than anticipated.
“I think there’s a degree of optimism that the Afghan forces have the momentum this summer,” he said, “but I think the Taliban have proven to be resilient in the past, and I think there’s still a fair amount of fighting ahead.”
Dunford met with senior U.S. and Afghan leaders to assess progress in NATO’s Resolute Support mission. In the Afghan capital of Kabul, he attended talks with President Ashraf Ghani, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, Defense Minister Abdullah Khan Habibi, and Chief of Defense Gen. Qadam Shah Shahim.
The chairman described the meetings as “very positive,” with a focus on reforms of the Afghan security forces and continued support for the Afghan security forces to 2020 and beyond.
While Afghans previously were uncertain about their future, they now are looking out for the next several years, Dunford said. “It seems this time, their horizon is pushed out a little bit further, and they seem to have some confidence,” he told reporters.
Dunford added that he was struck by the tone of the discussions.
“I haven’t seen the degree of optimism in Afghanistan prior to this, [and] that includes my entire time there,” said Dunford, who commanded the International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces Afghanistan from February 2013 to August 2014.
Decisions in Washington, as well as international support for Afghanistan, are contributing to the optimism, the chairman said. At NATO’s summit this month in Warsaw, Poland, the alliance renewed its commitment to the Resolute Support mission and agreed to fund Afghan forces until 2020. President Barack Obama had previously said he wanted to cut the 9,800 U.S. troops currently in the country to 5,500, but decided recently to maintain a force of 8,400 through the end of his presidency in January.
Another factor giving the country a boost is Obama’s decision to grant expanded powers to the Resolute Support commander, Army Gen. John W. Nicholson, allowing the general to authorize offensive strikes against the Taliban.
“It’s a psychological turning point, it’s clear to me,” Dunford said.
Work Remains to be Done
But despite the positive developments, serious work remains, Dunford said, adding he is a realist in terms of the challenges ahead for Afghanistan.
“We’ve seen peaks and valleys in the Taliban before, but certainly on the ground right now, the Afghan forces have the momentum,” he said, noting the Afghans have a “very good” plan this year, applying lessons learned in 2015.
“We’ll keep pressing ahead on the battlefield, we’ll keep supporting the Afghan forces, [and] we’ll keep making sure that the governance continues to mature,” the general said.
When all of those things align and the Taliban figure out that they have no chance of winning on the battlefield, the chairman told reporters, “then the prospects of reconciliation will increase.”