Nicholson spoke as the U.S. military seeks to showcase its new, more aggressive approach for the war in Afghanistan, now in its 16th year. Seeking to signal a break with the Obama administration, the White House in August authorized a sizable increase in the U.S. troop presence and a more expansive, open-ended mission to combat insurgent groups, including the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the regional Islamic State affiliate.
There are now about 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the Pentagon said on Tuesday, up from about 8,400 at the end of the Obama administration.
As part of the new strategy, Nicholson said, the U.S. military is planning to deploy new advisers to accompany Afghan army forces as they conduct patrols and offensive operations in areas where the Taliban poses a major threat. Before that change, only troops assigned to elite Afghan commando units were permitted to regularly take part in such operations, outside the relative safety of fortified military bases.
Once the new troops are in place, more than 1,000 advisers will be out conducting operations with lower-level Afghan units, including those from the army and the Afghan special forces, at any given time, Nicholson said.
Speaking in a video briefing from Afghanistan, the general said the changes would help local troops “maintain a tempo that will enable them to start retaking 80 percent of the country over the next two years.”
Nicholson said the new strategy would seek to ensure that more than three-quarters of Afghans live in areas under government control two years from now. Currently, according to U.S. military estimates, only about 64 percent of Afghans live in locations firmly in the grip of the Kabul government.
He said the deployment of advisers with Afghan army units would intensify the threat to Americans, who will face the threat of roadside bombs, militant ambush, artillery fire and other dangers. “There will be greater risk,” he said. “Absolutely.”
Even with the aerial surveillance, artillery, and air power employed to minimize risks, Afghanistan has remained a dangerous place for U.S. forces. At least 12 U.S. service members have been killed in Afghanistan so far this year.
Nicholson said the goal of expanded military operations was to facilitate a settlement between the government and the Taliban.
Just last week, the general announced strikes on suspected narcotics labs in Afghanistan, another element of the expanded campaign to cut off funding for militant activities.