With winter approaching in Afghanistan, Taliban militants there seem more determined than ever to expand their influence across the country.
On Friday, the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan announced that it was sending Western advisers to Farah province, a rural area just northwest of Helmand Province, to buoy Afghan soldiers there battling the insurgent group.
The newfound Western presence in Farah comes roughly a week after Taliban fighters began making concerted efforts to seize the city of Farah, the capital of the province. Around the same time, the Taliban began offensives near Helmand’s provincial capital of Lashkar Gah and also managed to enter the northern city of Kunduz before being pushed back to the city’s outskirts after more than a week of heavy fighting.
“What we believe we’re seeing right now is the Taliban trying to make an effort before the end of the year to achieve their 2016 strategic objective of capturing a provincial capital,” said Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland, the spokesman for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, in an email.
It is unclear how many advisers are heading to Farah, but Resolute Support, the name of the NATO-led Afghanistan mission, tweeted that it had sent an “expeditionary advisory package,” or group of soldiers and advisers, to the embattled province.
There are currently such groups deployed to Lashkar Gah and Tarin Kowt, the capital of Uruzgan Province. In Lashkar Gah, the team includes roughly 50 soldiers and a small contingent of advisers. While military officials bill the advisory packages as a means to assist embattled Afghan security forces with on-the-ground guidance, the U.S. troops provide more of a “placebo effect,” said one U.S. adviser.
U.S. forces have also been propping up Afghan security forces with hundreds of airstrikes against the Taliban. In June, the Obama administration granted expanded authorities for airstrikes in Afghanistan, allowing U.S. forces to target the Taliban to provide “strategic effects” on the battlefield. In reality, the effects have done just enough to keep the Taliban from holding key territory — such as a district center — for an extended amount of time. Before the summer decision, U.S. air power had been relegated to going after terrorist targets and supporting the defense of U.S. Special Operations forces throughout the country.
Though unannounced at the time, the new strike permissions were meant to be a temporary boost for the Afghan security forces as they fought into the fall, however, according to senior military and administration officials, the airstrikes will continue into the future.
“The “strategic effects” authority remains in place to provide Gen. [John W.] Nicholson additional flexibility to support conventional [Afghan security forces] and has been used to good effect to allow for more proactive combat enabling and tactical advising, increasing our opportunities to support the [Afghan security forces] in their responsibility for the security of Afghanistan,” said Adam Stump, a Pentagon spokesman, in an emailed statement.
Despite the widening of U.S. air support, the White House believes that the war in Afghanistan is tipping in the Taliban’s favor. Speaking on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly about Afghanistan’s deteriorating security situation, a senior administration official called the situation in the country an “eroding stalemate.”
In 2017, U.S. forces will draw down from 9,800 troops to approximately 8,400. With little mention in the recent presidential debates, it is unclear how the next administration will handle the next stage of the United States’ war in Afghanistan.
Greg Jaffe contributed to this report.