WASHINGTON, Aug. 25, 2016 — Afghan forces are performing better this year than last year, and are generally on track with their offensive campaign plan and are on a positive trajectory, the NATO Resolute Support Missiondeputy chief of staff for communications said today.
Army Brig. Gen. Charles H. Cleveland, briefing the Pentagon press corps live via video conference from Kabul, began by offering the deepest sympathies of the command to the families of Army Staff Sgt. Matthew V. Thompson, who died Aug. 23 in Helmand province, and to the families of 12 people — seven of them students — who died yesterday in an attack on American University of Afghanistan in Kabul.
Thompson was killed when an improvised explosive device detonated during dismounted operations with his patrol and Afghan counterparts near Lashkar Gah. Officials said the blast wounded another U.S. service member, who is in stable condition, and six Afghan soldiers.
Cleveland said an investigation is being conducted to determine the exact circumstances of the event.
Train, Advise, Assist
The NATO Resolute Support Mission is a train, advise and assist effort that trains Afghans on everything from how to fire a weapon to how to fly an airplane, embeds advisers at multiple levels in the ministries of Defense and Interior, and helps with financial, material, logistics and intelligence assistance.
Resolute Support also trains, advises and assists at the ministry, army, police and the special forces levels, Cleveland said, adding, “We do have the authority under NATO to be able to go out and provide very tactical-level train, advise and assist to our Afghan partners.”
In most cases that takes place on a compound or a forward operating base, and Resolute Support advisers have the authority to go outside the wire to train, advise and assist Afghan partners as they conduct operations, Cleveland said.
“Our role in that, of course, is that we don’t participate, we don’t go on the objective, but we provide the assistance they require,” he said.
On the overall status in Afghanistan, Cleveland said the NATO mission has seen an uptick in fighting over the last month, specifically in Helmand and Kunduz.
“This is the heart of the fighting season,” the general said, “and we have absolutely been expecting that this is really when the Taliban were going to try and make their large push.”
Briefly summarizing the 2016 Afghan forces campaign plan, Cleveland said that at the end of March they began in Kunduz, essentially moving to the offense and trying to engage the Taliban.
They had success there and then defended Kunduz City, subsequently turning south and moving their main effort into Helmand, where “again in our view they had success,” the general said.
In central Helmand a U.S.-led train, advise and assist group is based at Camp Shorab, Their focus is to train, advise and assist the 215th Afghan National Army Corps, also based there, Cleveland said.
“Helmand has always been the Taliban’s main effort. It is their prime focus. It is where they invest the most energy,” the general added, noting that the Taliban began the 2016 fighting season with an offensive called Operation Omari in which they said they wanted to hold and seize terrain so they could start developing a sanctuary in Helmand.
Cleveland said: “I would tell you candidly, the fighting was slower than we anticipated in Helmand … we thought the Taliban would launch strikes and attacks earlier but they didn’t start until the end of July. And … really what we’ve seen is, I’d refer to these almost as raids.”
As Cleveland describes it, 15 to 20 Taliban would assault a checkpoint or a district center, a smaller group of Afghan forces at the location would withdraw, the Taliban would loot the place, then the Afghan forces would come back and move them out.
“What we see is the Taliban are not able to hold any specific terrain. Most important is, they are not able to hold any of the population centers and that’s really what the Afghans have built their entire strategy on for this campaign season, is being able to secure key population areas as well as key infrastructure,” the general said.
This is the Taliban’s main effort, he added. Historically, this is where they want to be and they announced it at the beginning of the fighting season. Cleveland noted.
Afghan Air Force
Cleveland acknowledged the NATO Resolute Support Mission probably started late with the Afghan Air Force, but said now they are developing as quickly as possible, with eight A-29 Super Tucano aircraft that they’re using around the country to conduct close-air support.
The Afghan Air Force also has 23 operational MD-530 helicopters and received five more today. Cleveland said they’re using the helicopters in Helmand.
The general added that for about two weeks in Helmand the U.S. forces, under authorities given by President Barack Obama in mid-June, were conducting “a lot of” strikes.
“But since then, what you’ve really seen is the bulk of the strikes and the bulk of the air support is coming from the Afghans,” the general said.
“When we think about these new authorities, in many ways they are also a bridge to an Afghan capability to get their air force further developed, further integrated, further having the ability to use what they refer to as their Afghan Tactical Air Controllers, or ATACs,” he said, “and then being able to plot deliberate targets.”
Cleveland added, “So in our view they are making progress. They absolutely have a way to go, but often times when you hear about air strikes in Helmand or in Kunduz, it’s going to be Afghan air strikes with us coming in and providing some additional assistance as needed.”