Despite "huge costs" and a stalemate after 16 years of war in Afghanistan, the commander in charge of troops there says he favors the Trump administration's new strategy of seeking peace talks with the radical Islamic Taliban.
"Our focus is to put pressure on the Taliban to make that a viable option for them, that they need to come to the table," Army Gen. Joseph Votel told reporters at Central Command headquarters on MacDill Air Force Base near Tampa.
Asked whether seeking to negotiate a peace with the radical Islamic terror group seeking total control over the country is possible, Votel said using American and allied military forces to back local Afghan government forces remains the main focus of the new effort and must continue.
"That's what the object is here is, to use the military pressure to bring them to the table and enhance the efforts, not only diplomatically but regionally, focused on bringing this to some kind of a political negotiation settlement and some kind of peace discussion that takes place," he said. "So the military plays a critical role in that."
The general believes the military "can't do it all ourselves" but that forcing a peace deal is possible.
"Do I think it's possible? Yeah, I'm always hopeful on that," he said. "I'm a guy who went to Afghanistan in 2001 and I've been back every year since. So I think they deserve the opportunity."
But the four-star general agrees with the assessment of the on-site U.S. commander, Army Gen. John Nicholson, that the conflict is stalemated.
U.S. forces first entered the country in late 2001 to oust the al Qaeda terrorist group that had been given safe haven and used its redoubts to conduct the September 11 terror attacks on New York and Washington that killed 3,000 people.
Since entering the mountainous southwest Asian country, the United States has spent $117 billion and resulted in more than 2,400 American deaths, according to a report made public in April by the Special Investigator for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
The war has become the longest in U.S. history.
Additionally, the Taliban in recent months has retaken control over some parts of the country that were taken from them earlier by Afghan government forces. Afghan troops, despite U.S. training, still appear to lack both capabilities and equipment needed to win against the Taliban.
President Trump announced in August he had launched a new effort to win the war, including the dispatch of more U.S. troops.
"We've made a huge investment in Afghanistan, just the lives and national treasure here," Votel said. "And we've taken away the ability of Afghanistan to be used as a platform for our country to be attacked. That's important. That means something. And I think we do have to see this through."
The latest fighting season, a period when conditions for both Afghan government and Taliban military operations are conducive, is coming to end Votel said.
"I think we're still very keen to break the stalemate and that's what this effort is about right here," Votel said. "So I'm not declaring victory with this, but I think some of the steps we're taking to move forward are positive steps that are moving us in the direction of breaking that stalemate."
Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress earlier this month that President Barack Obama's decision to pull out U.S. troops too soon from Afghanistan undermined the American war effort.
Dunford said his military assessment is that "we drew down our advisory effort and combat support for the Afghan forces too far and too fast."
"As a result, the Taliban expanded territorial and population control and inflicted significant casualties on the Afghan army and police, while we lost campaign momentum," he said.
The new U.S. strategy is aimed at getting Afghanistan's U.S.-trained forces, now numbering up to 300,000, to go more on the offensive against the Taliban.
Dunford revealed in House Armed Services Committee testimony that the long-range objective is to produce an Afghan-led peace processing to end the conflict.
Critics say the new Pentagon strategy fails to account for the ideological nature of the Taliban threat.
Sebastian Gorka, until recently a senior White House counterterrorism advisor, said the Taliban, which means "students," refers to many fundamentalist Islam groups in Afghanistan.
"Some tribal or militia leaders may be willing to negotiate," Gorka said. "Others in the Taliban had actually sworn bayat loyalty oaths to the Islamic State and they will never compromise with the ‘infidel,' whoever our president may be."
Gorka says he hopes the United States is not making the same mistakes in Afghanistan made by prior administrations by imposing wishful thinking onto a contrary reality.
"Afghanistan is not a ‘problem' for America to solve," Gorka said. "The president instinctively knows this. It matters for only one reason: its territory must never again be used to launch mass casualty attacks against U.S. citizens in America. That objective will not be met by negotiating with theocratic fundamentalists."
Michael Waller, vice president of the Center for Security Policy, also is critical of the negotiating aspect of the new strategy, asserting that negotiating with the Taliban will fail.
"Sixteen years after invading Afghanistan, we find ourselves considering a way out to let the Taliban re-take the land and political space that we fought so hard to win," Waller said.
"This is because the Defense Department no longer has an official definition for ‘victory.' There was never a strategic plan for victory in Afghanistan. The Defense Department's own official dictionary doesn't mention the word ‘victory' in its 387 pages."
Without making military victory over the Taliban the main goal has shifted to a negotiated settlement.
"If we negotiate with the Taliban, we will show our intractable enemies that with enough determination, they can grind down the U.S. military," Waller said. "If we provide that example, we invite a permanent jihad against us."
Waller said ideologically motivated jihadists do not negotiate the way nation states do, for political gain. Jihadists instead will use negotiations to achieve religious and ideological objectives.
"So any negotiation for us to withdraw from Afghanistan will result in an ultimate strategic victory for the Taliban and its foreign backers," he said. "It will prove the hardiness of the Taliban-al Qaeda model over that of the Islamic State. There is no alternative for the United States but total destruction of the Taliban and its foreign sponsors."
Votel also warned about Iran's long-term ambitions in the Middle East and said his troops are prepared to defend against Iranian attack in the aftermath of anticipated new U.S. sanctions.
"Iran is kind of a long-term destabilizing actor in the region and so we remain concerned about their activities as well," he said.
The president is expected to decertify that the Iran nuclear deal is in the U.S. national security interest and impose some new sanctions.
"Leadership will make the decisions and we will be prepared to do what we need to do to continue to protect ourselves and particularity to protect our interests in the region," Votel said.