- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
Fifteen years into America’s longest and costliest war, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said Tuesday that he needs more troops and more time to break the stalemate that persists between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
“I have adequate resourcing in my counterterrorism mission,” Gen. John Nicholson, who leads U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. But in the training mission “we have a shortfall of a few thousand” troops, he said, without specifying if he were asking for more Americans to be deployed.
“I believe we are in a stalemate,” Nicholson said when asked by Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.) if the U.S. and its allies were winning or losing the war.
Since 2002, the United States has spent $117 billion to build up the Afghan government and stand up its security forces, as well as launching hundreds of development and humanitarian projects. And the spending is hardly over — Washington’s share of the bill will come to about $5 billion per year through 2020, according to current plans.
Despite that investment, the government in Kabul continues to struggle to maintain a steady presence outside of the capital — holding just 57 percent of the country according to the latest statistics — and the Afghan army has suffered some punishing losses at Taliban hands over the past year.
Nicholson said part of the reason for the impasse are the “safe havens and external support,” the Taliban receives from Pakistan and the powerful Haqqani network, which operates on both sides of the Afghan/Pakistan border. At the same time, he said, the Taliban have morphed into a “narco-insurgency,” raking in millions of dollars harvesting and selling heroin, smuggling goods, kidnapping, and extortion.
The 8,400 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, with another 5,000 troops deployed by NATO allies, are unable to break the stalemate since they’re not able to train enough Afghan forces. In the more contested parts of southern and eastern Afghanistan, only small groups of Special Operations troops can accompany Afghan forces battling the Taliban and ISIS, and their effect is limited due to their small number.
While the troops involved in the training mission are in non-combat roles, American and NATO commandos have never given up their own counterrorism mission in the country. Nicholson can pour more U.S. forces into the fight when he needs to surge combat forces, though precise numbers of special operations forces in Afghanistan are unavailable.
The new troops the general says he needs to help train and advise the Afghan armed forces “could come from our allies, as well as the United States,” Nicholson said. “We have identified the requirement, and…these additional forces would enable us to thicken our advisory effort across the Afghan ministries” and to do more advising at lower levels of the armed forces.
Nicholson also warned about growing Russian influence with the Taliban. “Russian involvement this year has become more difficult,” he said. Overall, the Russian “goal is to undermine the United States and NATO in Afghanistan,” he said.
He voiced frustration with the “false narrative [Moscow] promotes that the Taliban are fighting the Islamic State and the Afghan government is not fighting Islamic State,” he said. The Islamic State moved into eastern Afghanistan in 2015, and since then Afghan forces backed up by U.S. airstrikes have hit them hard, reducing their numbers — once estimated to be as high as 3,000 — by half, and cutting ISIS-held territory by two-thirds.
Nicholson also warned about Iran’s negative influence, which he said aims at “undermining the Afghan government” generally, since a functioning democracy right next door could be seen as a threat to the mullahs in Tehran.
Photo Credit: NOOR MOHAMMAD/AFP/Getty Images