The top commander of US forces in Afghanistan has asked the Senate Armed Services Committee for the deployment of a few thousand additional troops to the country in order to overcome a stalemate in the 16-year-long war.
In a hearing on Thursday, Army Gen. John Nicholson did not give an exact figure for the number of troops necessary but suggested they could come from the United States or its allies in the coalition. He added that he had discussed the question of troop levels with Defense Secretary James Mattis and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Joseph Dunford.
President Trump has said little about his intentions regarding Afghanistan. But at the hearing, Nicholson told senators he believed that the Trump administration would be open to adjusting troop levels on a more ad hoc basis, rather than on capping them at a predetermined number.
The general also accused Russia of trying to undermine US efforts, noting that it had also recently invited diplomats from the Taliban, China, Pakistan and other regional neighbors – with the exclusion of the Afghan government – to Moscow for meetings about the future of Afghanistan. He added that Russia had sought to spread a “false narrative” that the Taliban, not the Afghan government, was fighting Islamic terrorist groups. When asked by the Associated Press if evidence existed that suggested Russia was providing support for the Taliban, Nicholson declined to comment, saying he was referring to classified intelligence.
The request returns a spotlight on a war that has largely fallen out of the US public eye, and raises the possibility that the Trump administration could break with former President Barack Obama's gradual winding-down of US involvement in the region and pivot toward greater military involvement there.
Mr. Obama campaigned for president on a pledge to wind down the war and pull out all but a small embassy protection force by the time he left office. But faced with what he described as a “risk of reversal” due to a revived Taliban and unreliable Afghan military and police forces, Obama ended up announcing that he would leave about 5,500 American servicemen there when he left office, as The Christian Science Monitor’s Howard LaFranchi reported back in 2015. And this past July, he changed plans again, ordering a much smaller troop reduction – from 9,800 at the time to 8,400, roughly the present level.
Those decisions drew condemnation from many Democrats – who saw them as stepping stones on a path to endless war without a clear vision of how the US would eventually withdraw – and some Republicans who advocated for the maintenance of a robust US troop presence.
Reaction to Nicholson’s request on Thursday broke down along similar lines, with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) of Massachusetts highlighting the war’s $13 million-per-day price tag, and Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona backing the request, which he called a “penalty” for Obama’s reluctance to boost troop levels.
"When the general says we're not winning? And the Russians are increasing their influence? And al-Qaida is increasing? We really have no choice," said Senator McCain, according to the Associated Press.
This report contains material from the Associated Press.