The commander of the US war in has requested several thousand new troops for America’s longest-ever conflict to break what he described as a stalemate.
In the first indication of the course the 15-year-old war will take under , army Gen John Nicholson told a Senate panel that he was facing a shortfall of troops necessary for training Afghan forces to ultimately replace their US and Nato counterparts.
“They could come from our allies as well as the United States. We have identified the requirement and the desire to advise below the corps level. It would enable us to thicken our advisory efforts across the mission,” Nicholson told the Senate armed services committee on Thursday.
Afghanistan's 'ghost soldiers': thousands enlisted to fight Taliban don't exist
Nicholson acknowledged that the has gained territory across the country in 2016, and that the Afghans have “tens of thousands” of absent or nonexistent Afghan soldiers on their payrolls. But he described the current situation in Afghanistan as a “stalemate.
One reason for the deadlock, Nicholson said, was the increasing spoiler role of Russia, which has been accused of aiding Trump in the election and with which Trump seeks to reconcile.
Nicholson said Russia was seeking to undermine the US and in Afghanistan, adding that he was “concerned about the increasing level” of unspecified Russian support for Taliban insurgents.
Nicholson said he was not seeking additional forces for counter-terrorism operations, the other remaining mission bequeathed to Trump by Barack Obama, who initiated a troop surge and then reduced them to their present levels of 8,400.
It is unclear how Trump will respond to Nicholson’s request. Over the years, Trump has publicly advocated withdrawal from Afghanistan and characterized the war as a disaster.
Nicholson said he believed the Trump administration was “open to a discussion of an objectives-based approach” that would include a commensurate troop increase, and said he thought it would be possible to meet US objectives with fewer than 30,000 troops.
The commander expected to discuss the force request “in greater detail” at next week’s conference of Nato defense ministers.
Trump has previously called the war in Afghanistan – a conflict in which nearly 2,400 US troops have died – “a total and complete disaster”. In 2013, he tweeted, “,” calling the war “nonsense” and a waste of money.
Last month, the Taliban sent an open letter to the new US president, urging him to follow through on his longstanding position. “The responsibility to bring to an end this war also rests on your shoulders,” the insurgent group .
Nicholson subtly contradicted Trump’s positions on defense. He conspicuously praised Nato for its persistent contributions to Afghanistan, despite Trump calling Nato irrelevant in an age of terrorism. He criticized Russia’s role in Afghanistan, where he said it was beginning to “publicly legitimize the Taliban” through a “false narrative” that the insurgents, not the Afghan government, were fighting the Islamic State presence in the country.
Though Nicholson praised Obama’s June relaxation of restrictions on US airstrikes, the commander criticized Obama’s troop reductions and limitations, and advocated managing the war “by objective, not force-manning level”.
The troop caps have resulted in the military expanding its reliance on contractors to a “two-to-one ratio” of contractors to troops, meaning the in Afghanistan is employing a contracted force of nearly 17,000.
To keep US troop levels at 8,400, Nicholson said, a deployed US aviation brigade left its mechanics stateside, prompting the military to contract for “tens of millions of dollars” in aviation maintenance.
Sharp rise in children killed and maimed in Afghan war, UN report reveals
Pressed by senators on what the US could concretely do differently after 15 years of war, Nicholson praised the cooperation of President Ashraf Ghani but mostly described Afghanistan as a counter-terrorism opportunity for the United States.
“The viability of an enduring counter-terrorism platform in Afghanistan is critically important to our national security,” Nicholson said.
He laid out an expansive list of objectives to present to the new administration, including longstanding ones that the persistence of the Taliban has frustrated, including the “destruction” of al-Qaida in the country, expanding the Afghan government remit over the populace and compelling the Taliban to sue for “reconciliation”.
Even after such war aims might be achieved, Nicholson said the US ought to “continue our counter-terrorism efforts in an environment of a prosperous and stable Afghanistan”.