Fifteen years after the U.S. invasion, Afghanistan is in a “stalemate” that will require several thousand more Western troops to break, the war’s top U.S. commander told Congress.
Gen. John “Mick” Nicholson’s testimony laid on Donald Trump’s desk the first major war decision — surge troops or not? — just three weeks into his new and tumultuous administration, which so far has focused more intently on U.S. border security than overseas military engagements. The commander of NATO’s Operation Resolute Support said he expected Defense Secretary James Mattis to present the request to alliance defense ministers when they meet next week in Brussels.
“I believe we are in a stalemate,” Nicholson told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday. He said the current Western coalition has a “shortfall of a few thousand” troops. But rather than the 30,000 combat-brigade soldiers sent by President Barack Obama in 2009, Nicholson said he wants more “advise and assist” troops to help Afghan forces, who incurred heavy losses in 2016 as they beat back various terrorist offensives. The general said his forces have enough equipment and resources for the mission but needed more “expeditionary packages” of advisors to deploy across Afghanistan. The desired troops would come “below the corps level” and could be American or come from allied nations of the NATO training mission.
“We’re going to be able to discuss this in greater detail,” at NATO next week, Nicholson said.
The general said one reason for the resurgence of insurgent and terrorist fighting was that enemy groups still have “safe havens and external support,” including from within Pakistan and the Haqqani network. That group, along with the war itself, has largely disappeared from American reporting, but was a crucial focus during the height of the war early in the Obama administration, especially by former Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen. After Obama unilaterally declared an official end to the war, downsizing to roughly 9,000 American troops, the security burden has been shifted to Afghan forces and elite U.S. special operations counterterrorism units, which have been given stricter rules of engagement.
In a blistering statement, committee chairman Sen. John McCain said the Obama administration had obsessed about troop numbers instead of needs.
“Unfortunately, in recent years, we’ve tied the hands of our military in Afghanistan, and instead of trying to win, we settled for just trying not to lose,” said McCain, R-Ariz. “Meanwhile, the risk to American and Afghan forces has only grown worse as the terrorist threat has intensified. The Taliban has grown more lethal, expanded its territorial control, and inflicted heavy casualties on Afghan forces.”
The war has now cost $117 billion, and continues to drain $13 million every day, noted Sen, Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., one of the committee’s newest members.
One effect of Obama’s troop ceiling has been a reliance on contractors, for service and fighting roles. The contractor-to-soldier ratio is now 2:1, Nicholson said.
“We have substituted contractors for soldiers in order to meet our force requirement levels” the Army general said. One U.S. Army aviation unit deployed its pilots, planes and other crew, but left its mechanics back at Fort Riley, in Kansas. Instead, they hired private contract mechanics, “in order to optimize the number of uniformed soldiers we are allowed,” he told the senators.
“This has a direct impact on Army readiness and it also costs us more money,” he said. “This is one of the issues we’ve put on the table…It would be better” to deploy whole units.
Senators asked what else was needed and for how long the U.S. military would be in the region. Nicholson said U.S. Special Operations Command commander Gen. Tony Thomas and others were working on plan now that he did not want to preclude, but the region was so rife with terrorist groups and conditions for feeding them the U.S. would require long-term presence.
“It would necessitate an enduring counterterrorism platform,” he said. Of the twenty terrorist groups in the region, he said, “It’s like a petri dish” in which you drop 20 terrorist groups “and what you see is the convergence” of all.