STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The United States is trying again to force the Taliban to negotiate in Afghanistan through 16 years of war - 16 years as of this month - that has been the hardest part. President Trump's new strategy for the war called for sending more troops and giving no timeline for their withdrawal.
NPR's Tom Bowman was recently in Afghanistan and spent a day with the man who has to make the new strategy work.
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TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: General John Nicholson sits with his fellow NATO officers and Afghan officials inside a massive aircraft hangar at a base in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. It's a change of command ceremony, handing over command of the training effort here from one German general to another. Nicholson gets up to speak and sends a pointed message to insurgent fighters.
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JOHN NICHOLSON: The Taliban cannot win, and they have no choice but to reconcile. The good news is that reconciliation is possible because of the hard work and the sacrifice of the Afghan National Security Forces and the Afghan people.
BOWMAN: Before long, Nicholson heads back to his headquarters in Kabul. He settles into his wood-paneled office lined with plaques, pictures and ceremonial swords. He spent more time in Afghanistan in various jobs than any other senior American officer, a total of five and a half years.
Nicholson's a genial West Point graduate with salt-and-pepper hair and a renewed confidence. That's because the White House gave him more authority to attack the Taliban, more warplanes and drones to mount punishing airstrikes and a few thousand more American troops to advise the Afghans. Just seven months ago, Nicholson said the Afghan fight was at a stalemate.
NICHOLSON: With the policy decision announced by President Trump, it sets the conditions for us to get to a peaceful resolution of this conflict.
BOWMAN: Is it still a stalemate?
NICHOLSON: It is a stalemate right now. I mean, the authorities, the troops, the air are newly arrived. But with these, we can now move this in the right direction.
BOWMAN: The general says key parts of the plan include, over the next several years, doubling the size of the Afghan commandos, the army's best fighters, and doubling the size of the Afghan Air Force, providing its pilots with modern American helicopters to replace the aging Russian ones. Maybe more importantly, the troop drawdowns and deadlines of the Obama administration are no more. Conditions on the ground, success against the Taliban, will be the new metric.
NICHOLSON: It's absolutely critical. So that plus the Pakistan piece were absolutely critical.
BOWMAN: The Pakistan piece - that means getting rid of the Taliban safe havens in Pakistan just across the border. Since the 9/11 attacks, Pakistan has ignored pleas, threats and the withholding of aid money from the U.S. to eliminate these sanctuaries, which the Taliban uses to plan and regroup. Nicholson says he can't be successful while those safe havens exist.
NICHOLSON: The president said, you know, no partnership can survive when one of the partners is providing safe haven to terrorists who are attacking the other. So...
BOWMAN: But they've been providing safe haven for years and years and years. What's different?
NICHOLSON: Well, number one that's different is that those conversations are going to occur at the highest level of government. And I don't want to insert myself into that.
BOWMAN: Nicholson is convinced that cutting off those sanctuaries and putting more military pressure on the Taliban in Afghanistan will force the Taliban to the bargaining table. But some military officers and regional experts in Washington think that's too optimistic. The Taliban have proved resilient, have plenty of weapons and enjoy public support, particularly, in the southern part of the country. The Afghanistan national government is not popular out in the provinces, is riddled with corruption, consumed with infighting and at times predatory.
Nicholson says the Afghan government is now making important changes, appointing more competent military commanders and prosecuting corruption cases. And for the first time, next year, Afghans will go to the polls and elect district representatives who up to now have been appointed.
NICHOLSON: This is significant because this is the first time that we'll have representative government at the local level connecting with representative government at the national level.
BOWMAN: Andrew Wilder, an Afghan expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace, has another concern. The new Trump strategy places too much emphasis on military action against the Taliban and not enough on diplomacy.
ANDREW WILDER: Right now, we're focusing on the - inflicting pain and not offering the talks piece. I'm worried that on one hand, we're putting the pressure on and the other hand, saying, well, let's take the table away.
BOWMAN: Nicholson says there's some outreach to the Taliban at the local level, but he acknowledges the Taliban political office in Qatar, opened in 2013 for peace talks, could close.
NICHOLSON: That conversation is going on at the national level between our government and the Afghan government. There's pros and cons to that, but I'll just leave it at that.
BOWMAN: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Nicholson points out, says the Taliban office is not being used for the peace process.
NICHOLSON: It's being used for fundraising for the Taliban inside the Gulf and that they've been - again have been not been materially advancing the peace process.
BOWMAN: So military pressure on the Taliban is clearly the central part of the new strategy. And the fight is now being led by the Afghan military, supported by American airstrikes that have doubled over the last year. And to assist in the current and future fight, the U.S. is sending another 4,000 troops to Afghanistan. Nicholson said small teams will help Afghan forces down to a lower level, closer to frontline fighting.
NICHOLSON: We are there to advise. We're not there to engage in combat.
BOWMAN: Still, he acknowledges that being closer to the battle - even going out on missions - could mean more American casualties.
NICHOLSON: There's no telling - that could end up - you know, in the fluid battlefield we face, they could come in harm's way.
BOWMAN: The number of American troops next year in Afghanistan will increase from 11,000 to roughly 15,000. At the height of the war, some 140,000 U.S. and NATO troops were fighting, and they could still not seal a victory against the Taliban. General Nicholson has a ready answer.
NICHOLSON: We only had 140,000 troops for a period of about 18 months out of a 16-year war.
BOWMAN: And the troops left too soon, a view held by a number of senior officers who served in Afghanistan.
NICHOLSON: I'll tell you, as a military commander, I think we drew down too far, too fast. And that's what led to some of the challenges we've faced the last couple of years. We pulled off the Afghan units too soon, and now we're fixing that.
BOWMAN: General Nicholson says the goal is to get Afghanistan to quote, "a manageable level of violence."
NICHOLSON: The key here is not to eliminate all violence. It's to simply get it to a level that can be controlled by the government forces.
BOWMAN: When will that level be achieved? General Nicholson predicts about five years.
Tom Bowman, NPR News.
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