Thousands more troops and billions more dollars are needed to break the war in Afghanistan out of a "stalemate," the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan warned Congress on Thursday.
Army Gen. John Nicholson also told the Senate Armed Services Committee that outside powers have increased their meddling in Afghanistan over the past year, especially Russia, in ways that make it tougher for the U.S.-backed government in Kabul to make and keep gains against insurgents.
That's why the U.S. and its allies must send more troops and spend more money to help the Afghan military become more effective at attacking and defeating its enemies and keeping control of the ground they capture.
"Offensive capability is what will break the stalemate in Afghanistan," Nicholson said. He did not detail exactly how many additional troops are needed.
The general's testimony launched America's seldom-discussed, longest-running war back onto front pages. The conflict has been going badly but has been largely overshadowed by the historic presidential campaign and inauguration of President Trump.
The new administration's policy on Afghanistan is a question mark; it seldom came up during the election. When Trump visited the military headquarters at U.S. Central Command responsible for the war on Monday, he did not mention it. Nicholson's high profile warnings to Congress on Thursday put Afghanistan back at the top of the agenda for Trump and national security adviser Mike Flynn.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., complained bitterly Thursday that the deadlock Nicholson described was the fault of former President Barack Obama. In 2012, Obama decided to settle for "Afghan good enough," leading to a steady withdrawal of American combat troops.
There are still more than 13,000 NATO troops — including 8,400 U.S. service members — deployed to Afghanistan, but McCain said he's been warning all along that the force is too small.
What Nicholson called a stalemate, McCain said, "was predicted — predicted — by those of us who know something about warfare."
Afghanistan is dealing with many of its same longstanding problems. Its weak, often shambolic central government cannot survive without heavy international financial support. Its military, which Nicholson said is improving, cannot win decisively against insurgents in key places or contested ground — and takes such heavy combat losses that it cannot get up to its full authorized strength.
Nicholson urged Congress to increase support for Afghanistan's U.S.-supplied and trained air force, which he said would help it turn the tide.
Even so, the Taliban's leaders can still repair to their safe havens in the tribal areas of neighboring Pakistan. They enjoy protection from the criminal Haqqani Network in places such as Quetta, out of the reach of major U.S. combat power.
Some challenges are new, however: Iran has begun to support the Taliban in Western Afghanistan, Nicholson said, and it's also recruiting Shiite Afghans to join its campaigns against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Meanwhile, ISIS also wants to spread roots inside Afghanistan itself. The Kabul government is fighting a nascent ISIS presence as it also fights the Taliban, but Nicholson said Russia has begun claiming that isn't so.
Moscow has begun "a public effort to legitimize the Taliban," Nicholson said, that is aimed at undermining Kabul among its own citizens and warning neighboring countries that ISIS could spill over into their nations as it did in the Levant.
"This is a false narrative," Nicholson told senators. He alluded to "reports" about Russia supporting the Taliban directly. Later, he added: "I believe its intent is to undermine the United States and NATO."
He pointed out that U.S. and Afghan forces have killed a number of ISIS leaders in Afghanistan, as well as terror bosses from al-Qaida, who continue to use ungoverned spaces there to plot attacks as they did before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The counterterror mission is working, Nicholson said. That has the troops, drones and resources needed. But he said the U.S. and NATO need to send more troops to continue training Afghanistan's regular troops, so they can resist the Taliban's attacks, keep control of territory and reverse the "stalemate."