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
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
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
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
"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."