Stronger U.S. role likely in Afghanistan
The Pentagon wants more control over NATO there in light of Taliban resurgence.
The Pentagon will send a one-star general to Afghanistan this fall as part of a politically parlous but determined effort by the US to assume greater control in the country's troubled southern sector.Skip to next paragraph
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It's a small change to the complex command structure blamed for an ineffective counterinsurgency strategy that allowed the Taliban to stage a comeback.
But the deployment of the commander may pave the way for the US to slowly begin taking over the southern sector's military efforts as NATO's role there diminishes over time.
"I really think this will be a precursor of a larger American role," says one retired senior officer familiar with the move.
With his recent promotion to brigadier general, John "Mick" Nicholson likely will become a deputy commander of what's known as Regional Command South, making him the "go-to" American contact to coordinate US efforts within the snarl of US and NATO commands. The retired senior officer describes General Nicholson as "a tremendous talent." "Putting Nicholson in there is recognition that we've got to get more US engagement in the headquarters," he says.
The deployment of Nicholson and a small American staff comes after reports last week that Defense Secretary Robert Gates will approve a $17 billion funding program to increase the size of the Afghan National Army by almost 100 percent to 120,000 soldiers.
Mr. Gates, who for months appeared unenthusiastic about making changes to the convoluted command structure in Afghanistan, will also approve changes in which the current NATO commander, Gen. David McKiernan – an American – will also report directly to US Central Command in Tampa. Fla. Currently General McKiernan reports through a NATO chain of command, which has stymied the American efforts to focus combat operations in the south.
"They are laying the necessary groundwork so that the really painful but necessary decisions will fall to the next administration – including the US taking over in a significant way," says one Republican aide on Capitol Hill.
Initially a symbol of what an American-led coalition could do in the days after the attacks in September 2001, the mission in Afghanistan began to falter a couple years ago as the Taliban exploited the ineffectiveness of the NATO-led peacekeeping mission there.
Now, American and some allied nations recognize the need for a definitive combat role in the southern sector, including Kandahar and Helmand provinces, where the violence is some of the worst. But the effort to right the approach has been hamstrung by a lack of troops and a bifurcated command structure in which, unlike the mission in Iraq, no single commander is really in charge.
In Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus is the sole commander and thusly can "shape the battlefield" using his own counterinsurgency strategy.