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The UK is to send an additional 85 personnel to the 500 troops currently deployed in Afghanistan. The increase comes amid reports of deteriorating security and calls from US commanders for more soldiers to break the ‘stalemate’.

NATO defence ministers agreed on 29 June 2017 to increase the number of troops deployed in Afghanistan. Their mission is to train, assist and support Afghan security forces. It is not a combat mission – the NATO-led combat operation ended in December 2014. Currently over 13,500 troops from 39 countries support NATO’s Resolute Support mission. The Trump administration is currently reviewing its Afghanistan strategy.

NATO in Afghanistan

Between August 2003 and December 2014 NATO led the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. On 1 January 2015 NATO immediately transitioned to a new, non-combat mission called Resolute Support. This is based on a Status of Forces Agreement concluded with the Government of Afghanistan in November 2014.

Resolute Support is designed to train, advise and assist the Afghanistan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) and institutions.

As of May 2017 Resolute Support consists of:

  • 39 contribution nations
  • 13,576 troops
  • The US is the largest contributor
  • Other contributors of significant numbers include Italy, Germany, Georgia, Turkey, Romania and the UK.

Further resources: chronology of NATO’s presence in Afghanistan; current and previous troop levels (these are published as “placemats”).

A ‘challenging’ security situation

Senior UN, US and UK officials have described the security situation in Afghanistan as deteriorating or challenging.

In March the Taliban captured Sangin, scene of over 100 British deaths a decade ago. The BBC reported that the Taliban controlled “more territory than at any point since the US-led invasion in 2001 which toppled its regime”. A Taliban attack on an Afghan army base in Mazar e-Sharif in April killed over 100 Afghan soldiers in April. While 150 people are estimated to have been killed in the suicide bomb attack on the diplomatic enclave in Kabul on 31 May.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office described the security situation as “challenging” in April 2017. The UN Special Representative for Afghanistan has described a “deteriorating security situation” and an insurgency “that seems to be gaining ground” in his June briefing to the UN Security Council.

Since early 2017 US commanders have repeatedly described the situation in Afghanistan as a “stalemate” and have called for additional forces to help train Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF). In June, Jim Mattis, the US Defense Secretary, stated “we are not winning in Afghanistan right now” and the Pentagon described Afghanistan as at a “critical point in the fight against the insurgency”.

NATO asks for more troops….

NATO put out a request for additional troops in late spring 2017. At least 15 countries, including the UK, pledged to increase their contributions at the NATO defence ministers meeting on 29 June 2017. Specific numbers have yet to be defined. Jane’s Defence Weekly suggested European allies are “being coy about pledging any new troops for ‘Resolute Support’ until Washington indicates its own numbers” concluding “the enthusiasm is not there in Europe”.

… but this is not a return to combat

Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s Secretary-General, has made it clear this does not signal a return to NATO-led combat operations: “what we are aiming at now is to not go back to a combat operation but to adjust, strengthen the existing train, assist and advise mission”.

UK contribution

UK combat operations in Afghanistan ended in late 2014. However the UK is participating in NATO’s Resolute Support mission and until late 2016 deployed around 450 personnel. This number increased to 500 in early 2017 to reflect the commitment made at NATO’s Warsaw Summit in July 2016 to provide additional troops.

The Ministry of Defence announced on 29 June 2017 (HCWS16) it will be sending an additional 85 personnel in response to NATO’s request for more troops. The MOD said they will serve in non-combat roles to mentor the Afghan army, police and air force.

US forces

The US is by far the largest contributor to NATO’s Resolute Support mission with nearly 7,000 troops.

However the US has around 2,000 more troops working on counter-terrorism operations against al-Qaeda and other such groups, such as ISIS-affiliate ISIS-Khosaran, under Operation ‘Freedom’s Sentinel’.

US commanders have been calling for additional soldiers to support the ANDSF and to break a ‘stalemate’ in combat against insurgent groups. In June In June President Trump delegated authority to the Pentagon to set troop levels in Afghanistan (see also DOD press release. The decision was interpreted by some as the President delegating his responsibilities to set troop levels.

The Trump administration has yet to set out its strategy for Afghanistan and US media have reported differences between the White House and the Pentagon as being behind the delay in outlining a strategy.

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