Additional US aircraft, forces headed to Afghanistan, top commander says

The U.S. will be sending additional troops and air power to Afghanistan, the top commander of U.S. forces there said Thursday.

WASHINGTON ― The U.S. will be sending additional troops and air power to Afghanistan, the top commander of U.S. forces there said Thursday.

In a press conference in Kabul, Gen. John Nicholson, commander of the NATO-led Resolute Support, said “in the coming months, U.S. Forces ― Afghanistan and NATO will increase its train, advise and assist efforts in Afghanistan. And we will increase our air support to Afghan security forces.”

Nicholson said the additional forces will be used to keep pressure on the Taliban to eventually force them to cease fighting and seek a negotiated peace with the Afghan government, and to prevent cells of Islamic State fighters and al-Qaida from further strengthening there.

“We are determined to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorists, who wish to attack the rest of the world from Afghan soil.” Nicholson said. “We are determined to pursue the goal of a political settlement. As these terrorist groups realize that they cannot win, they will see that their best option is to pursue peace.”

The additional U.S. forces, as many as 3,900 more, are part of President Donald Trump’s revised strategy to prevent Afghanistan from losing additional ground to the Taliban or other terror groups and to try to end the 16-year-old war there. 

In a White House call with reporters Thursday, a senior administration official said the extra troops would allow U.S. forces to be deployed ”down to the tactical level,” with additional “tools and authority to better support their Afghan partners.” 

“It‘s what our troops are doing in Iraq and Syria,” the official said. ”The president wants the troops in Afghanistan to have the save authorities they have in Iraq and Syria.”

The Pentagon reports that there are 8,400 U.S. troops in Afghanistan participating in NATO’s train, advise and assist mission, and a counterterrorism mission against cells of Islamic State and other terror groups there.

But it’s likely there are many more forces than the 8,400 on the ground now, as many as 12,000, according to news reports.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has said he is working on getting an accurate count of forces before requesting more.  The military does keep a daily, accurate count of forces but that figure is not shared publicly.

But it won’t just be a military approach, the senior administration official said, noting that the strategy also includes a ”surge in regional diplomacy” of U.S. embassy staff in Pakistan and India to convince both countries to cease destabilizing activities in Afghanistan as both seek to increase their influence there. 

Nicholson and Hugo Llorens, the U.S. Embassy’s special chargé d‘affaires, told reporters that Trump’s strategy was a promise to Afghans that the U.S. would not withdraw from Afghanistan. On Monday, Trump acknowledged that had been one of the options he’d considered.

Now Trump is convinced U.S. forces must remain, under a new approach that does not provide a withdrawal date or disclose how many more troops are going in, or how long the U.S. may be staying, the senior administration official said. 

“President Trump made clear we are not going to withdraw,” the official said. When asked what that mean for the extent of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, the official said, ”I can’t give you a number, I can’t indicate 16 years into the future.”

Nicholson said the extended U.S. commitment to keeping troops on the ground in Afghanistan is in both countries’ best interests.

“We will not fail in Afghanistan,” Nicholson said. “Our national security depends on it, as well as Afghanistan’s security, and our allies and partners.”

But Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid suggested that the enduring U.S. presence in Afghanistan would only encourage the Taliban to keep fighting. In a telephone interview with The Associated Press, he said, “we are not giving our guns to any one and our Taliban are fighting until the last U.S. soldier is no longer here in Afghanistan.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.