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Hundreds more U.S. military advisers will be heading into Afghanistan next year, and the top American officer there, General John Nicholson, says more of them will be in harm's way. That's because they'll be accompanying Afghan troops on missions against the Taliban. NPR's Tom Bowman has more.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: The military advisers are now training at Fort Benning, Ga., and when the fighting season begins next spring in Afghanistan, they'll leave the safety of their bases where most Americans are now staying and head out on combat missions. Here's General Nicholson.
GENERAL JOHN NICHOLSON: Yes, there will be greater risk, absolutely. So - but we've been doing this the last few years with our special forces.
BOWMAN: Special forces - Green Berets who go out on counter-terror missions with Afghan commandos to track down al-Qaida and ISIS. They work in small teams, and the new advisers will do the same.
NICHOLSON: We will move these teams to those units that are conducting offensive operations, and then those teams will be backed up by U.S. combat enablers.
BOWMAN: Combat enablers - that includes everything from surveillance and medivac flights to artillery and airstrikes to support the American and Afghan troops. This will be a change for U.S. troops who pretty much turned over the fight to the Afghans in 2014 and focused on training. But since then, the Taliban recaptured territory the Americans had won with hundreds of casualties. Nicholson said the Taliban have not lost any of that territory over the past year.
Roughly one-third of the country is still under either Taliban control or being contested by the insurgents. That's why more American advisers are deploying to Afghanistan. And they'll boost the troop numbers from the current 11,000 to more than 14,000. In recent weeks, General Nicholson has labeled the war now entering its 17th year a stalemate. He was more optimistic today given the more aggressive policy outlined by President Trump.
NICHOLSON: We are on our way to a win.
BOWMAN: Nicholson said the military action is just one part of the effort to push the Taliban into peace talks. The U.S. is also going after Taliban financing, particularly its poppy crop that's turned into heroin. U.S. and Afghan airstrikes recently bombed opium processing plants, just some of the hundreds in southern Afghanistan. The Taliban have evolved as an insurgency over the years, Nicholson said. This is how he now describes them.
NICHOLSON: A narco-insurgency or criminal insurgency, if you will.
BOWMAN: But the general said the Taliban still have a veil of legitimacy as a religious group and are able to pull in low-level fighters to join the cause. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.
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