KABUL, Afghanistan--The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and received detailed briefings on the situation in the country.
Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford learned about progress being made with the Afghan elections in September, operations against the Taliban, counterterrorism efforts against ISIS and al-Qaida and coalition efforts to train the Afghan military. Army Gen. Austin S. Miller, the commander of the Resolute Support mission, accompanied the chairman.
Reporters traveling with the chairman got their own briefs from U.S. and coalition officials. It is Afghanistan, so the information gathered is a mixed bag — preparations for the elections are going well, officials said, but no one really knows what will happen in the country if there is a peace agreement between the government and the Taliban. A wild card in the mix is the presence of ISIS and its efforts to reestablish itself after the defeat of its physical caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
The coalition officials said the Afghan government is ahead of where it has been in the past as far as the Sept. 29 election is concerned. The government staged a rehearsal and although coalition officials attended, they really didn't have much to do, said an operations official, speaking on background.
"This time I would say they are a month or six weeks ahead of where I've seen them in the past," the official said. All senior leaders from all Afghan government departments attended the rehearsal, as did representatives from the International Election Commission.
The Afghans discussed how they will move the election materials, how they will protect the polling places, how they will protect the candidates and other election issues. "Very early in the process, we are already planning and coordinating and synchronizing across the pillars of government," said an intelligence official speaking on background. These pillars include the Defense Ministry, the Interior Ministry and more.
The Afghans posited scenarios on what could happen before, on or after the day of the election and how they would respond together, he said. "To see that discussion at a strategic, governmental level, is welcomed," the official said.
The Afghans can call on the coalition if they need assistance, but so far they have not needed it, the operations official said. "We really are stepping back," he added.
Operations against the Taliban continue, the officials said, with the idea of convincing the Taliban that they cannot win on the battlefield, so their leaders need to make peace and cooperate with the government.
The Afghan military is not doing corps operations, the official said, because there is no need for such large-scale efforts now. "These big, sweeping operations are not the type of fight we are in," he told reporters.
The Afghan military is doing offensive operations. After the Eid holiday in June, "we had a 10-day stretch where we did 150 operations," the official said, adding that although the operations were planned at the corps level, companies — or possibly battalions — carried out the missions and that these missions work against the Taliban.
The coalition would like to see the Afghan military move away from checkpoints, the official said. In the past, he explained, the Afghan people saw checkpoints as security — "The government is watching out for me." But they really are just a vulnerability for the Afghan military and police, he said, noting that five officers checking ID cards at a crossroad is not security, but rather is a target. The Afghan military has reduced 900 checkpoints, but it started with 6,800.
Coalition officials are also impressed with the progress of the Afghan air force, which has provided support to ground troops in a big way, the intelligence official said. They are able to operate independently and at night, they deconflict with U.S. aircraft hitting other targets and they have become far more responsive to attacks on ground forces, he added.
"The Afghan air force has increased their response time, they have increased their targeting cycle, … they have created joint targeting teams," he said. "They have been very effective."
The peace talks underway in Doha, Qatar, while encouraging to all, also cause trepidation, the official said, noting that no matter what the settlement may be, not all members or groups in the Taliban will agree. Planners are looking at what could happen, he said: Will disaffected Taliban head for ISIS? Will they go to al-Qaida? How large a group will that be? What will the rank-and-file Taliban do in the event of a peace deal?
Afghanistan is a complicated area, with very few easy decisions, the official said.
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