After just under 100 days so far of President Donald Trump's new Afghanistan strategy, there are signs the Taliban insurgency is lowering its ambitions as it suffers greater losses, the top American commander in the country said Tuesday.
Army Gen. John Nicholson, commander of NATO's Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan, also said in the press briefing that the Taliban has essentially become "a criminal or narco-insurgency." He vowed airstrikes by joint U.S.-Afghan forces would continue to target the organization's source of money from the drug trade.
"The president has left no doubt in terms of our will to win," he said. "The goal of our strategy is reconciliation — a negotiated settlement which lowers the level of violence," Nicholson said.
Nicholson also spoke about how the U.S. has tripled the amount of airpower and munitions dropped so far this year in the 16-year Afghanistan war. He said as more warplanes get released from the ISIS fight in Iraq and Syria, "we expect to see more assets come to Afghanistan."
At the same time, Nicholson said the Afghanistan war is "now conditions-based, not time-based. We will be here until the job is done."
Nicholson said there were significant changes to the Taliban's strategy in the last year, including moving away from trying to seize provincial capitals because "they suffered heavily when they did so." He said the enemy had more setbacks after targeting Afghan districts this year so by August and September it took another shift: a guerrilla style of warfare with hit-and-run attacks as well as suicide attacks.
"Each of these shifts represented to us a lowering of ambitions by the enemy," he said.
The U.S. general also maintained that the Afghan government forces went on the offensive this year and have become "more capable" after several changes, including new leadership. He said with the changes and international support the "momentum has shifted in their favor."
Meantime, the general also said there is a regional dimension to the new Afghanistan-South Asia strategy announced by Trump in August, specifically to limit interference by Taliban enablers and others and generally to seek more cooperation from Afghanistan's neighbors.
Nicholson went on to say the goals would be achieved by applying three forms of pressure on the enemy, including military actions and stronger security measures. He also said diplomatic, social and other forms of pressure will be applied to enablers of the enemy.
"In the face of this pressure, the Taliban cannot win," he said. "Their choices are to reconcile, live in irrelevance, or die." He also said the Taliban is making more money than they need to operate from activities in the drug trade.
Still, he said the U.S. military effort is necessary but by itself not sufficient for success in the long run.
According to Nicholson, airstrikes last week on drug facilities in Taliban-controlled areas in northern Helmand Province have removed between $7 million and $10 million of revenue from the Taliban's wallets. And he estimated the overall cost to the drug-trafficking enterprise approached $48 million.
"So these strikes were just the first step in attacking the Taliban's financial engine, and they will continue," said the general.
Nicholson also said the Taliban makes its money from kidnappings and illegal mining operations. He estimated the Taliban continues to control about 12 percent of Afghan territory.