The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan told Congress on Thursday that thousands more troops are needed in Afghanistan to break the “stalemate” in the fight against terrorism, making it the first major war decision President Trump will have to take while in office.
Army Gen. John Nicholson told the Senate Armed Services Committee that there are enough U.S. and NATO troops in counterterrorism operations against the Taliban, but more are needed to “train, advise and assist” the Afghan forces.
“We have a shortfall of a few thousand,” Nicholson said. “This is in the NATO train-advise-and-assist mission, so this can come from U.S. and its allies.”
He added that the forces could both be drawn from the U.S. as well as its allies.
“The current security situation in Afghanistan is a stalemate where the equilibrium favors the government,” he said in his statement. “Leadership and countering corruption are two areas in which the (country’s security forces) must improve to reduce casualties and increase military capability.”
There are about 8,400 U.S. troops and 5,000 troops from foreign allies stationed in Afghanistan currently.
Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain slammed the Obama administration for installing troop limits and endangering the lives of troops on the ground.
“Instead of trying to win, we settled for just trying not to lose,” he said. “Time and time again, we saw troop withdrawals that seemed to have a lot more to do with American politics than conditions on the ground.”
“Afghans are in the fight. They are not looking to us or anyone else to do their fighting for them. At the same time, they want and need our continued assistance: It is in our interest to help our Afghan partners become capable of standing on their own,” he added.
Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the Armed Services panel, called for more “flexibility” with the number of troops in Afghanistan because “an over-reliance on (Afghanistan special forces) is resulting in an unsustainable operational tempo and level of casualties.”
The Afghan National Army has 350,000 troops, but yet 70% of all offensive operations were conducted by the country’s 17,000 special forces personnel.
Nicholson expects Secretary of Defense James Mattis to discuss the issue with allies at a NATO meeting next week. Mattis is also scheduled to visit Afghanistan to get a better understanding of the challenges in the country.
Nicholson made the argument that the United States can’t pull out of Afghanistan yet because that would leave the U.S. vulnerable to attacks on American soil.
“We need to stay on top of it, because of the confluence of 20 different terrorist groups in the region,” he said. “I believe this is an enduring commitment.”
Trump has said during his campaign that he intends to pull back on American troops in conflicts overseas, but also to be more aggressive towards terrorist organizations and enemies.
Nicholson also brought up the issue of contractors in Afghanistan where the number of contractors is double that of troops in Afghanistan.
“We have substituted contractors for soldiers in order to meet our force requirement levels” Nicholson said. “This has a direct impact on Army readiness and it also costs us more money.”