KABUL (Reuters) - The NATO-led mission in Afghanistan has sent a one-star general to lead foreign troops in embattled Helmand province, officials said on Wednesday, a rare move that signals foreign forces’ deepening involvement in the war with the Taliban.
U.S. Army Brigadier General Andrew Rohling has been sent to command the Helmand advisory force, which was recently increased by several hundred troops, said Colonel Michael Lawhorn, spokesman for the NATO-led Resolute Support mission.
News of Rohling’s appointment came as NATO’s visiting top official said foreign military advisers may soon be more “flexible” in assisting Afghan forces.
Since NATO declared an end to its combat mission at the end of 2014, Afghan troops and police have faced escalating Taliban attacks. The army and police are losing thousands of people a month to casualties and desertions, and civilian casualty rates are among the highest of the 15-year-old war.
Rohling is an unusually high-ranking officer for the size of the advisory force in Helmand, which normally would be commanded by a colonel or lieutenant colonel.
“Assigning a permanent general officer to the area to oversee the train, advise, assist mission is a sign of how important Helmand is both to the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the international coalition,” Lawhorn told Reuters.
Helmand has been one of the provinces hardest-hit in the war’s intensification in the past year. Afghan troops have been forced to withdraw from several districts.
Although Helmand is historically one of the country’s most violent areas and a major opium-growing center, the NATO-led force had not keep a large permanent presence there.
Instead, a small force of advisers rotated in and out after NATO declared its combat mission over at the end of 2014.
As Afghan forces lost ground, however, the foreign presence has grown in recent months and now numbers several hundred.
Military officials say Rohling’s presence should add force to NATO’s bid to coordinate efforts and reorganize the Afghan army corps in Helmand, which has been plagued by leadership problems and desertions.
In Kabul, visiting NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters that some international trainers would go back to advising Afghan troops in smaller units and providing more intelligence and medical evacuation support, especially in the most contested provinces like Helmand and Kunduz.
“What we have decided is that we will have a more flexible and targeted approach with the resources that we already have in Afghanistan,” he said.
Abandoning a plan to withdraw most troops by the end of 2016, the NATO-led force last year decided to keep about 13,000 troops through most of this year. The exact number to remain in 2017 had yet to be determined, Stoltenberg said.
The decision to expand the role of foreign troops echoes recommendations from top military leaders including recently departed NATO force commander U.S. General John Campbell.
American and other foreign advisers have already found themselves drawn into heavy firefights while embedded with Afghan forces.
Stoltenberg acknowledged that the alliance should have started building up Afghan forces earlier in the war, which began when a U.S.-led force toppled the hard-line Islamist Taliban for sheltering the planners of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on U.S. cities.
But he disputed suggestions that the change to plans represented failure of NATO’s exit strategy.
“The fact that we are adjusting is not a sign of weakness, but it’s a sign of strength, that we are able to adjust, that we are able to change, that we are able to be flexible,” he said.
Reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Robert Birsel