(CNSNews.com) – Five years of “telegraphing” to the Taliban that U.S. and coalition forces were leaving Afghanistan prompted the enemy to believe “we had lost our will,” the top U.S. military officer leading the campaign there said Monday.
But a recent NATO defense ministers’ gathering, said Operation Resolute Support commander U.S. Army Gen. John Nicholson, had given him a real sense that “we now have the will to succeed.”
Three months into President Trump’s new South Asia strategy, Nicholson briefed reporters by teleconference on how forces battling the Taliban are focusing on targeting the terrorist group’s main funding source – drugs.
He also spoke of how encouraged he was at the NATO ministerial in Brussels this month to hear two dozen nations signaling potential troop increases.
“Almost to a minister we heard very strong shows of support for the mission.”
Nicholson said that as the mission’s commander, “number one, I’m concerned about international will, and international will to succeed.”
“War is a contest of wills,” he continued. “And from 2011 to 2016, we telegraphed to the enemy that we were leaving. We drew down our forces steadily – I’d say too far and too fast – and so the enemy believed that in this contest of wills, we had lost our will.”
But at that NATO ministerial, he said, what came across to him “loud and clear” was that “we now have the will to succeed.”
In what he described as the first “significant” use of the new authorities under Trump’s new strategy, Nicholson described U.S.-Afghan joint bombing raids Sunday on narcotics-processing facilities in Helmand province.
For the first time in Afghanistan, he said, the U.S. used F-22 Raptor stealth aircraft capable of hitting direct targets with small (250 pound) bombs in a bid to minimize civilian casualties.
B-52 bombers were also used, in one case dropping several 2,000 pound bombs to obliterate a facility where more than 50 barrels of opium were cooking at the time of the strike, he said.
The Afghan government announced eight facilities had been destroyed, in line with decisions to “to target drugs processing sources, so that all drugs trading centers are destroyed in the country.”
‘Irrelevance or death. These are the choices they face’
“We’re hitting the Taliban where it hurts, which is their finances,” said Nicholson, who explained that the group has to some extent “evolved into a narco-insurgency,” with profits from narcotics now exceeding its operating expenses.
“We find that the leadership of the Taliban fight over the money and it’s often divided along tribal lines.”
With illegal mining, kidnap-for-hire and murder among its offerings, he described it as largely a “criminal organization.”
“Heroin’s become a global problem,” he said. “Just like terror, heroin and opiates have become a global issue.”
Criminals who are part of or linked to the Taliban are responsible for 80 percent of world’s opium, Nicholson said, citing law enforcement agency estimates the illegal economy accounts for a street value close to $60 billion.
Heroin originating from Afghanistan, he said, were on the streets of the United States, Canada, Europe, Russia, the Balkans and Iran.
At least $200 million from this industry goes into the Taliban’s bank accounts, and this fuels and really pays for the insurgency.”
Nicholson said the raids on narcotics facilities, unleashed under the expanded U.S. authorities provided under the strategy announced in August, will continue, adding that many targets have been identified .
“Our message to the enemy is that, ‘You cannot win the war. It’s time to lay down your arms and enter into the reconciliation process,’” he said.
“And if they don’t,” he added, “they’re going to be confined to irrelevance as the Afghans expand their control of the country – or death. And so, these are the choices they face.”
“The new US strategy on Afghanistan is conditions-based not time-bound, which means we will eliminate terrorists until the end.”
Nicholson underlined that U.S. forces were not targeting farmers who grow the poppies, saying that in many cases they were terrorized by the Taliban into growing them, threatened and possibly with their children held as collateral.
Provoking the ‘pious’
The U.S. now has approximately 14,000 troops in Afghanistan, Pentagon Joint Staff Director Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie told a briefing last week.
He said that was in line with additional troop numbers identified by the commander as needed, and approved by Trump and Defense Secretary James Mattis.
In public, the Taliban continues to convey an air of confidence despite the new strategy.
The terrorist group’s spokesman, Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, in a new interview posted on its website, described Trump’s policy shift as an “amateurish and wicked strategy which is harmful for their own forces besides undermining their long-term interests in the region.”
Increased civilian casualties from coalition bombings, he claimed, have “provoked the pious and freedom loving people of our country and they are now joining mujahidin in large numbers to get rid of this ruthless foreign occupation.”
U.N. figures of Afghan civilian casualties during the first nine months of 2017 attribute 64 percent of fatalities and injuries to “anti-government elements” – the Taliban and ISIS factions – and 20 percent to “pro-government forces.”
Another 11 percent of civilian casualties are blamed on fighting between pro- and anti-government forces.