Note: This article has been corrected.
KABUL, Afghanistan — The outgoing commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan said Saturday he is confident that Afghan security forces can deal successfully with the current Taliban offensive and urged the insurgents to join the peace process as their best chance for having a role in the country’s future.
"The future of the Taliban is exactly what (Afghan) President Ashraf Ghani has asked them to do, which is to become part of the political process," U.S. Army Gen. John Campbell told reporters Saturday.
He also said that the Islamic State group in Afghanistan remained relatively small and was under continuing attack by U.S. and Afghan government forces and even the Taliban.
"The Taliban are the main danger to the national government, not Daesh," he said using the Arabic acronym for the extremist group.
Campbell, who has served as commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan for the past 18 months, is due to be replaced in early March by Lt. Gen. John "Mick" Nicholson.
Speaking at what he said was likely his last news conference as commander, Campbell urged the Taliban to join peace talks. The so-called Quadrilateral Group of diplomats from the United States, Afghanistan, Pakistan and China, have held a series of meetings to hash out a roadmap for peace talks with the Taliban. The next meeting is scheduled for Feb. 23 in Kabul. The Taliban have been invited to attend but have not yet responded.
Campbell said that in order to improve, the government’s security forces need to promote younger and more capable officers. They also need to end the practice of manning hundreds of checkpoints, which makes them vulnerable to attack and depletes manpower needed to deal with Taliban offensives.
Ghani’s government has replaced 92 army generals over the past two months, due to incompetence or concerns about corruption.
Campbell has overseen the transition of the NATO-led coalition, which formally ended its combat role at the end of 2014, reducing down to a much smaller train, advise and assist mission.Since then, Afghan army and police have had sole responsibility for the country’s security. They have struggled in the face of a virulent Taliban offensive on multiple fronts that has not abated with the onset of winter.
Militants allied with the Islamic State group — which has overrun large portions of Syria and Iraq — also established their first, albeit tenuous presence, in remote areas of Nangarhar province on the border with Pakistan in 2015. And al-Qaida terrorists had to be bombed and dislodged from a large training camp in a remote desert area in the south last year that the coalition had been unaware of.
Still, some in Kabul have criticized the coalition command for not anticipating the Taliban offensive this winter, in which the insurgents briefly occupied the northern city of Kunduz — the first major urban center to fall to them in the 15-year war — and managed to seize control of parts of southern Helmand province and other areas in the south and east. In the past, the insurgents used to retreat in winter to their safe havens in Pakistan, but this year they went on the attack partly due to the mild weather over the past three months.
But Campbell said the Taliban too were facing serious issues: "Money issues, leadership issues, huge casualties. They’re also tired after 15 years of war."
However, on Saturday, the insurgents launched an attack on an Afghan army base in the embattled town of Sangin in southern Helmand, a traditional stronghold of the movement, Campbell said. Suicide bombers blew up two captured Humvees packed with explosives in an effort to breach the town’s defenses. Army troops beat back the attack, and both sides suffered casualties, Campbell said.
But a spokesman for the Afghan army’s 215 Corps, which covers Helmand, said four suicide bombers had died in the attacks, and that there were no casualties among the troops.
Campbell said the U.S. had significantly increased airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Afghanistan after President Barack Obama in January granted authority for attacks against the militant group in Afghanistan.
Most of the group’s fighters are said to be Pakistani militants and some disaffected Taliban guerrillas.
"Last year, Daesh was described as nascent, this year it’s operationally emergent," Campbell said, referring to the group by its Arabic acronym. "Last year, I didn’t have authority to attack Daesh, but I have this year."
In addition to the U.S., the Afghan army and police have been attacking the group, as have local Taliban units, he said, adding that intelligence estimates put the number of Islamic State fighters at between 1,000 and 3,000, mostly in Nangarhar.
Nicholson, who served as deputy commanding general for operations in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2012, has said he expects to reevaluate the size of the U.S. force in Afghanistan — currently about 9,800 troops — within 90 days of assuming command.
Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.