JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas —
No decisions on whether to increase U.S. forces in Afghanistan have been made yet, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told reporters in Israel May 9.
Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford said national security leaders have not gone to President Donald J. Trump yet with Afghanistan troop recommendations for 2017 and beyond.
"One of the key discussions we are going to have is what are the horizons for the mission in Afghanistan and how do we articulate it," Dunford said in an interview. "I expect Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and I and others will brief the president soon."
Any increase in the NATO and U.S. mission to Afghanistan must be viewed in context, the general said. In the past year, Afghan forces have taken a lot of casualties in battling the Taliban and other groups. Army Gen. John M. Nicholson, the commander of Operation Resolute Support in Afghanistan, described the situation in Afghanistan as a "stalemate" during testimony before Congress last month.
Dunford said the situation is clearly not moving in the direction Afghan President Ashraf Ghani wants it to. Last year, Ghani announced a four-year plan, which looked at what was possible for the future of his country. It included a listing of the goals for a secure and stable Afghanistan.
Nicholson took this plan and reviewed the campaign to identify what he would need to assist the Afghan government in realizing Ghani's plan. His recommendations are in the Pentagon and are being discussed among high-level officials across the U.S. government.
"It is fair to say that we have looked at all the potential ways to accelerate the campaign and meet President Ghani's objective outlined in his four-year plan," Dunford said.
The president has spoken with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, and the organization has begun conversations with troops contributing nations. The chairman will be in Brussels next week to speak with fellow NATO chiefs of defense. And on his three-day trip, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has been meeting with the ministers of defense for the counter-ISIS coalition.
Besides force levels, new authorities, new capabilities, economic reforms and political aspects must also be addressed, Dunford said.
"It's all of those things being reviewed" and they all have to be looked at holistically, he said.
ISIS-Khorasan is active in Afghanistan, as well as almost 20 other designated terror groups in the Central Asia/South Asia region.
"I know from personal experience that the pressure we put on al-Qaida and those terror groups every day for the last 16 years is the reason they have not regenerated and conducted attacks," he said. "I also know they have aspirations to conduct attacks, and an ungoverned space in Afghanistan or South Asia would be contrary to our interests."
Meanwhile, the fight against global terrorism continues, Dunford said.
"We can be tired, but war is a clash of wills," the chairman said. "Who wins and who loses? Who loses is whose will is lost first. What we need to be mindful of is not low long we've been there, but what is the remaining threat to the United States and coalition partners."
The American presence in South Asia is necessary to stop Afghanistan from becoming an ungoverned space again, Dunford said.
"It's pretty clear to me that Afghanistan could possibly be a place where there are proxy wars with various regional actors, as well," he said.
The Afghanistan campaign is a counterterrorism mission under U.S. auspices, Dunford said. That mission must continue "as long as there is a threat – and I am not going to put a timeline on that," he said.
It will end, he said, when the underlying conditions that give rise to terrorism are addressed. "That doesn't reflect the size of the mission, but I would expect some influence, some presence is going to be necessary for an extended period of time," Dunford said. "Some people call this a generational war. If that's the case, we need to be prepared as a nation to deal with it."
Still, the form of the American presence in Afghanistan will change, the chairman said. "We have a 'by, with and through' strategy meaning what we're trying to do is enable local forces, in this case Afghans, to provide security inside Afghanistan," he said. "I do believe Afghan forces are making progress."
He noted that when he took over as commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul four years ago, there were 120,000 American service members in the country. When he left, there were 28,000. Now there are around 9,000 Americans in-country.
"The first two seasons the Afghans have been providing security on their own, it has been a pretty tough fight," Dunford said.
If the Taliban think all they have to do is hold out one more year and then the international forces leave and the capabilities that the coalition gives the Afghan forces will be gone, then they will hang on, the chairman said.
"But if there is an extended commitment by the international community that says we are prepared to do what has to be done as long as it takes to get the Afghans where they need to be … that's a different story," he said.