National Security

Top U.S. commander: Afghanistan ‘stalemate’ requires thousands more troops

In this photo taken Jan. 28, 2016, Gen. John Nicholson testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington.
In this photo taken Jan. 28, 2016, Gen. John Nicholson testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. AP

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan on Thursday said that several thousand more troops are needed to train and advise Afghan forces and break the “stalemate” in their fight against the Taliban.

Army Gen. John Nicholson told the Senate Armed Services Committee that 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.

We have a shortfall of a few thousand. And this is in the NATO Train Advise Assist mission, so this can come from the U.S. and its allies.

Gen. John Nicholson

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 announced 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 that 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” and said troops would probably 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, however, instead focusing on border security and asking the Pentagon to devise a strategy to defeat the Islamic State. The president only 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.”

America has been at war in Afghanistan for 15 years. Weary as some Americans may be of this long conflict, it's imperative that we see our mission through to success.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

In his seven-minute statement at his confirmation hearing, Secretary of Defense James Mattis also only briefly mentioned the conflict. 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 – he once headed Central Command – 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.

Vera Bergengruen: 202-383-6036, @verambergen