The top U.S. military commander in the Middle East believes there is reason for “cautious optimism” that the Trump administration’s South Asia Strategy is working in Afghanistan and creating the conditions for peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
“There is cause for cautious optimism and evidence that our South Asia strategy is working,” said General Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. Central Command, during a visit to Kabul where he met with senior Afghan security officials.
General John Nicholson, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and the Resolute Support NATO training mission, also believes the strategy is paying off.
"The advancement toward the reconciliation goal in President Trump's strategy has seen progress in the last year that we haven't seen in the previous 17 years, and that is significant," he said.
President Trump unveiled his administration's South Asia Strategy last August after intense internal talks about the way forward in Afghanistan for the U.S. military. The strategy removed timelines for U.S. troops in Afghanistan and made the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan conditions-based. It also called for a regional solution to Afghanistan that would focus on the ultimate goal of creating reconciliation – peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
“Overall Resolute Support has observed remarkable changes in the environment largely due by our new strategy,” Votel added.
Those changes include the recent ceasefire, and several grassroots peace marches spurred by the ceasefire as well as growing regional and diplomatic support for a peace process in Afghanistan.
Votel believes these indicators are more important of the mood in Afghanistan than the traditional measures of security used by the U.S. military.
Those metrics show that Afghan government forces still face a tough fight against the Taliban. For example, only two-thirds of Afghanistan’s major population centers are under the full control of the Afghan government and the Taliban continues to carry out attacks throughout the country.
In an interview with ABC News and the Wall Street Journal en route to Afghanistan Votel noted that while those metrics remain important he is looking at the South Asia strategy as a whole to measure whether it’s working.
“To me what we’re working towards is the assessment of the overall strategy. Are we on a strategy that is going to move us in the right direction?” said Votel. “My assessment is, we are cautiously optimistic, that we are moving this in the right direction.”
That includes progress in parts of the South Asia strategy like regionalization where Gulf countries and others in the region are building diplomatic pressure to support peace talks. Building on the success of last month’s ceasefire, President Ashraf Ghani’s government has indicated it may carry out another unilateral ceasefire next month.
General Nicholson supports the idea of another unilateral ceasefire despite the potential security risks that might come with it.
“The overall strategic objective of advancing the peace process in our view is worth the tactical risk,” said Nicholson.
Despite the cautious optimism that the strategy is working General Votel remains realistic “that there is a lot of work left to be done.”
“There will be more fighting. There will be potential setbacks, but the momentum is moving in the right direction under our strategy,” said Votel. “We are absolutely committed to moving forward.”