WASHINGTON, D.C. — Secretary of Defense Ash Carter “is confident” that President Obama’s Afghanistan plan “is on the right course,” Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook recently told reporters.
His comments came on the heels of a Foreign Policy (FP) magazine article revealing that the Afghan Taliban “now controls more territory than at any time since 2001.”
Nevertheless, Cook told reporters Tuesday that Secretary Carter is “confident that current plan in place is adequate to deal with the situation in Afghanistan.”
The spokesman did note that the president’s plan is under “constant review,” adding that Secretary Carter will be paying attention to ground condition assessments by U.S. military leaders, including Gen. John Campbell, the top commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Secretary Carter “wants to know exactly what’s going on, whether or not things are changing,” said Cook, adding “it’s always a process of review and hearing directly from the commanders on the ground as to whether or not there needs to be adjustments to that.”
Security conditions in Afghanistan have deteriorated since President Obama ended America’s combat mission in December 2014 and transitioned the U.S. troops to a train, advise, and assist (TAA) role, handing the lead of the fight to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF), which include army, police, and militia units.
“The Taliban-led insurgency has likely been emboldened by the coalition’s transition from direct combat operations to a TAA role and the accompanying reduction of coalition combat enablers,” the Pentagon acknowledged in a report released last month. “As a result, the Taliban will continue to test the ANDSF aggressively in 2016.”
President Obama has reduced the U.S. military footprint in Afghanistan to 9,800 troops, from a peak of about 100,000 in 2012.
Faced with a Taliban resurgence and a growing Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) presence, the president announced last year that the U.S. military will maintain its current force of nearly 10,000 troops through most of this year.
“By the end of 2016, rather than draw down to a Kabul-only U.S. military presence as previously envisioned, the United States will maintain 5,500 military personnel in Kabul and Bagram, in addition to a limited presence in the east and south of Afghanistan,” conceded the Pentagon report.
Secretary Carter “feels confident the decision the president made to adjust those troop levels was the right decision at the time,” said Cook. “It’s the right decision for the moment, and the U.S. is going to continue to provide the support it can to the Afghan security forces under that context.”
Cook acknowledged that the Afghan security forces are unable “to operate entirely on their own” despite a $60 billion-plus U.S. investment since 2002 to develop the security troops.
While briefing Pentagon reporters Tuesday, a reporter asked Cook whether the Obama administration was considering any changes to the U.S. military’s current train, assist, and advice mission.
“Right now, there’s no change in the conduct of U.S. forces, the mission that they have at this point,” responded the press secretary. “This is an ongoing conversation with the secretary and his commanders in the field…”
“We believe we’re on the right course,” he added. “But this is a constant review, and the secretary’s going to continue to reach out to General Campbell, hear from folks on the ground, as he was today… But we remain confident in the future of the Afghan government and the Afghan security forces with the help and support of the United States and other international partners.”
The Pentagon report declared that security conditions deteriorated across Afghanistan during the last six months of 2015, noting that Afghan security forces and civilians and Afghan suffered a record number of casualties at the hands of the Taliban.
“Though the insurgency remains resilient, the Afghan government remains in control of all major population centers and continues to deny the Taliban strategic ground throughout the country,” claimed the Pentagon.
However, FP reported Monday that the Taliban’s reach in Afghanistan is greater than at any point since the group was removed from power following the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
By October 2015, the Taliban was already in control of more territory than at any time in the last 14-plus years, revealed an analysis by The Long War Journal (LWJ) at the time.
A similar assessment conducted by the United Nations the previous month yielded the same results.
“With U.S. and NATO troops ending their combat mission in the country, the Taliban are attacking Afghanistan’s security personnel on multiple fronts,” reported FP. “And while the U.S.-trained Afghan troops are in many areas fighting harder than in Iraq, the result has nevertheless been a string of defeats and steady militant gains.”
The report added, “The Taliban also quickly rushed in to take advantage of the space created by NATO closing hundreds of combat outposts across the country, clawing back hard-won ground in the country’s south, north, and east…”
Cook refused to tell reporters whether the U.S. combat mission continues in Afghanistan.
His refusal came after he acknowledged that a member of the U.S. special operations forces was killed and two others wounded Tuesday “when they came under fire… on the ground” in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, located along the Pakistan border.
A number of Afghan troops were also injured in the insurgent stronghold of Helmand, which sits in the southern part of the country, next to Kandahar province, the birthplace of the Taliban. Helmand and Kandahar together have historically been the deadliest region of the Afghanistan war for U.S. military troops.
The Pentagon identified Tuesday’s U.S. Army fatality, the first of 2016, as Staff Sgt. Matthew Q. McClintock, 30, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, who was killed in Helmand’s Marjah District, “from wounds suffered when the enemy attacked his unit with small arms fire.”
“The incident is under investigation,” noted the Pentagon.
Although the “enemy” who took the staff sergeant’s life was not identified by name, Helmand is known as a Taliban stronghold.
The Taliban claimed to be active in Marjah on the day that McClintock, who was assigned to the1st Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group (Airborne), in Buckley, Washington, lost his life.
Last month, the Taliban claimed responsibility for killing six U.S. troops near Bagram Air Base, the largest U.S. military facility in Afghanistan, located in Parwan province, about 25 miles north of Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul.