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Will Trump change NATO's new Afghan strategy?

NATO's Afghanistan commander, US General John Nicholson, has said he needs 12,000 soldiers next year to continue his mission with "moderate risk." It is unclear if president-elect Trump would listen to this request.

When it comes to politics, General John Nicholson is supposed to be a "military advisor." But he has been very emphatic about what he wants the new government in Washington to do in Afghanistan. "Continuation of the (current) policy is a necessity for success," said the general at a press event on Tuesday evening in Berlin, a few hours before the results of the US presidential election were announced.

With the surprising victory of Donald Trump, what was an ordinary request from a general asking for more troops is now a critically relevant question for the future of the joint NATO-US mission in Afghanistan.  When speaking about US policy in Hindu Kush, president-elect Trump has made contradictory statements about how to proceed. Nicholson has said NATO needs at least 12,000 soldiers.

Trump's position is currently unclear

During the tense run up to the election in October, Trump said on CNN that the US engagement in Afghanistan was a "horrible mistake." A few days later, on the same network, he backpedaled from the statements saying that it was important that the US "maintain a presence there," and mentioned a force of 5,000 soldiers.

Currently, there are still around 13,000 international soldiers stationed in Afghanistan - among them 9,800 from the US. According to plans from President Obama, this number will sink to 8,400. For General Nicholson, this would be the absolute limit. Even with the current numbers, he says he could only continue the mission with a "moderate risk." He told DW that 15,000 NATO soldiers would be better.

A strategic turning point?

The situation in Afghanistan is currently coming apart at the seams. The 300,000 Afghan soldiers, who are often poorly equipped and demoralized, are not enough to provide a comprehensive level of security and US troops are increasingly needed to intervene when fighting breaks out.

But NATO has a new strategy that it hopes will turn things around. Afghan forces are giving up their wide net of checkpoints and defensive positions located in the flatlands and concentrating their forces for mobile assaults on the Taliban. Supported by NATO troops, the Afghan units are highly maneuverable and capable of targeted local offensives with superior strength.

US-Präsidentschaftswahl 2016 - Sieg Donald Trump (Reuters/M. Segar)

Trump said on CNN that the US engagement in Afghanistan was a 'horrible mistake'

A product of necessity, this strategy has only been marginally effective, but Nicholson is calling it a success because, "no cities have fallen to the Taliban this year." However, three large Afghan provincial centers, Lashkar Gah in the south, Tirin Kot in the center and Kunduz in the north, are still being fought over and are under threat from the surrounding areas. Because checkpoints in the countryside have been dismantled, in many areas insurgents are able to move relatively unimpeded up to the borders of towns and cities. The UN estimates that the Taliban currently controls more territory in Afghanistan than at any other time since US forces arrived in the country in late 2001.

Nicholson, however, is focusing on the percentage of the Afghan population that can be protected from the Taliban. Over 68 percent live under the protection of the government and only 10 percent under the control of the Taliban. A further 20 percent live in contested areas. Taking these figures into consideration, the Taliban seem to operate in areas where only a small number of people live.

A stalemate between the government and the Taliban

These successes have come at a high price and there are a growing number of losses in Afghanistan. According to the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan, which was created by the US Congress, in 2015, around 5,000 Afghan soldiers were killed. In the first eight months of 2016, the number was already more than 5,500.

Experts estimate that there are up to 1.2 million internally displaced persons moving around Afghanistan. In the first half of the year, the UN estimates that 1,601 civilians have been killed in fighting and attacks. The so-called "Islamic State" has also established itself in the east of the country along the border with Pakistan. To counter this additional threat, Nicholson said that NATO and the US "must continue to apply pressure."

Afghanistan Kämpfe um Kundus Spezialkräfte der Afganischen Armee (Getty Images/AFP/B. Khan Safi)

Afghan security forces in Kunduz search for Taliban militants

The general said that after two difficult years of fighting between the government and insurgents, a "stalemate" has developed. But he also sees the possibility that the situation could turn in the government's favor for the long term. Opening discussions with the Taliban continues to be a potential way forward according to Nicholson. He maintains hope that smaller groups that are willing to talk can be extracted from mainstream hardliners.

It remains unclear whether president-elect Trump will support this policy. Michael Kugelman, an Afghanistan expert in the United States at the Wilson Center, doubts that Trump is interested in continuing complicated peace talks with the Taliban. "He doesn't have a lot of patience," Kugelman told DW. He added that he thinks Trump will want to keep US troops in Afghanistan while simultaneously expediting their departure.  "I don't think that he wants an 'open end' presence, even if he his afraid of terrorism," said Kugelman.