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US: Taliban to Test Afghans in 2015    08/27 06:24

   KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Afghanistan's election stalemate this summer hurt 
progress in training the country's military, and resolving the political chaos 
will be key to that military's success in 2015, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford said 
as he stepped down as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan.

   The Taliban will test the Afghan forces next year with an onslaught of 
fighters and attacks, hoping to capitalize on the dwindling U.S. and coalition 
troops in the country, Dunford said Tuesday.

   Shortly after he passed the flag to his successor, Army Gen. John Campbell, 
during a ceremony Tuesday in Kabul, Dunford ended his 18-month tour and boarded 
a plane back to the U.S. His tenure at the battlefront spanned a critical 
transition period for the war, as the Obama administration announced a sharp 
drawdown in U.S. troops to wind down the conflict, while the Afghans struggled 
to put a new government in place.

   Earlier this year, Afghan forces were growing more confident as they set up 
security for the April election, then again for the runoff. But amid widespread 
accusations of election fraud, the two presidential finalists are awaiting the 
results of an audit to determine the winner, while continuing to argue about 
the tally's legitimacy.

   "As we went to political stalemate, we lost a little bit of the wind in 
their sails," Dunford said, adding that the Taliban took advantage of that and 
launched a series of attacks across the south. "They were looking for a place 
to actually get a psychological victory to reinforce ... the pessimism that 
followed the second round of elections."

   While the Afghan forces fought back and regained ground and a bit of the 
momentum, Dunford said the Taliban will mount another assault next summer.

   "If we have a good political transition, that will propel the Afghan forces 
into 2015," said Dunford, who is becoming the next commandant of the Marine 
Corps.

   That smooth transition in Afghanistan, however, is still in doubt.

   The April 6 voting to elect a successor to President Hamid Karzai resulted 
in a runoff between former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and ex-Finance 
Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai.

   Abdullah received the most votes in the first round but failed to get enough 
to win. Ghani Ahmadzai appeared to be ahead in the runoff but both men have 
claimed fraud, and Abdullah is now threatening to pull out of the election 
audit.

   If the dispute drags on, and there is no Afghan leader to sign a key U.S. 
security agreement, all American forces will be withdrawn at the end of this 
year. Such a withdrawal would disrupt ongoing U.S. efforts to advise and equip 
the Afghan military. And it could demoralize the Afghan forces and fuel the 
Taliban's fight.

   Campbell agrees that the political disarray may have an impact on the Afghan 
fighting force. In an interview at his headquarters Tuesday, he said he planned 
to evaluate what impact the election stalemate has had on the military 
transition and the effort to draw down and redistribute the U.S. forces. He 
said he wanted to determine whether the political problems have delayed the 
Afghans' progress and if any adjustments must be made.

   Others suggest that even if the politics settle down and the agreement is 
signed, Campbell would still face some difficult challenges, including a troop 
withdrawal plan outlined by President Barack Obama that would leave about 9,800 
U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan at the end of this year, half that by 
the end of 2015 and just 1,000 in a security office there after 2016.

   James Stavridis, former top NATO commander and the dean of the Fletcher 
School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said Campbell will have to 
maintain the confidence of the Afghan security forces during the transition, 
ensuring that the Taliban doesn't establish a territorial foothold.

   "So much of a fighting force's capability derives from their confidence --- 
their confidence in their equipment, in their leaders, in their logistics, in 
their national leadership," Stavridis said. "And that confidence will be 
challenged because of the departure of U.S. forces."

   He also said it was a mistake for the administration to be so definitive 
about the 2016 date for a full troop withdrawal, saying events on the ground 
should govern when the U.S. should depart. "It does nothing but give hope to 
the Taliban," he said.

   Stephen Biddle, a professor of international affairs at George Washington 
University, said the dwindling number of American troops will translate into 
less U.S. influence over the country as it moves forward.

   With fewer troops and money to give to the Afghans, he said, commanders 
won't have the resources to use to force change.

   "You can't do that with strongly worded demarches and speeches at training 
institutions," said Biddle, occasional consultant to U.S. commanders in 
Afghanistan. "How do you avoid just becoming a spectator?"

   Dunford remains optimistic, believing the election stalemate will be 
settled, the security agreement signed and the effort to advise and equip the 
Afghan forces will continue. He said the U.S. intends next year to deliver 200 
mine-resistant armored vehicles to the Afghans, along with new helicopters, 30 
aircraft for the special operations forces and other equipment and training to 
counter roadside bombs.

   The Taliban, he said, may well underestimate the force they will see next 
year.

   "There's an expectation still that the coalition won't be there; there's an 
expectation that the coalition's enabling support, if you will, won't be 
there," said Dunford. "And I'm not sure the enemy yet fully appreciates that 
the Afghan forces really can overmatch them in almost any conditions."


(KA)


 
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