The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan on Thursday said several thousand more troops are needed to train and advise Afghan forces and break the “stalemate” in their fight against the Taliban.
Gen. John Nicholson told the Senate Armed Services Committee the troops could come from the U.S. or its allies, although he did not give a specific number.
“I believe we’re in a stalemate,” Nicholson told committee chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., when asked whether they are “winning or losing” in a conflict that has stretched a decade and a half.
There are currently 8,400 U.S. troops in the country, conducting counterterrorism operations against insurgents and training and advising Afghanistan’s military along with 6,400 troops from NATO countries. Last year, former President Barack Obama said he would keep that number until the end of his term instead of dropping it to previously planned troop levels of 5,500 by early 2017.
In a phone call in December, Trump reportedly told Afghan President Ashraf Ghani he would consider a troop increase to stop the country’s security from deteriorating. The conflict received little attention during his presidential campaign. Trump called the situation in Afghanistan “a mess,” but said troops probably would have to stay there “because that thing will collapse in about two seconds after they leave.”
The Trump administration has not outlined a plan for the 16-year-old conflict, instead focusing on border security and asking the Pentagon to devise a strategy to defeat the Islamic State. The president gave it a passing mention during his speech at U.S. Central Command on Monday, which is responsible for military operations in the Middle East, thanking “everyone serving overseas, including our military personnel in Afghanistan.”
In his seven-minute statement at his confirmation hearing, Secretary of Defense James Mattis also only briefly mentioned the conflict once. However, he is a strong supporter of the NATO coalition that is leading the advising and training efforts, and given his own experience in Afghanistan is expected to take a hard look at operations on the ground.
At the hearing on Thursday, McCain criticized the troop limits imposed by the Obama administration, which “tied the hands of our military in Afghanistan.”
“Instead of trying to win, we settle for just trying not to lose,” he said. “Time and again, we saw troop withdrawals that seemed to have a lot more to do with American politics than conditions on the ground in Afghanistan.”
The U.S. and its allies reaffirmed their commitment to Afghanistan at a NATO summit last year, pledging about $800 million to support its security forces through 2020. Under the current funding structure, the U.S. provides roughly $3.5 billion a year to fund Afghan forces.