The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said Thursday that he is short “a few thousand” troops in the mission to train, advise and assist Afghan forces.
“I have adequate resources in my counterterrorism mission,” Gen. John Nicholson told the Senate Armed Service Committee. “In my train, advise and assist mission, however, we have a shortfall of a few thousand. This is in the NATO train, advise and assist mission, so it can come from America or its allies.”
Nicholson’s testimony before the committee is the first since President Trump’s inauguration, providing the first insight into how the new commander in chief might handle a war that received little attention on the campaign trail.
Right now, there are about 8,400 U.S. troops in Afghanistan on a dual mission of training, advising and assisting Afghan forces in their fight against the Taliban and conducting counterterrorism missions against groups such as al Qaeda. About 7,000 are dedicated to the NATO mission.
In addition to the U.S. troops, there are about 6,400 NATO troops in the country.
The number of U.S. troops is down from 9,800 last year. Former President Obama had initially planned to draw down that number to 5,500 but decided instead to set the troop number at 8,400.
The troop levels are adequate for a counterterrorism mission, Nicholson said, because he is able to bring in U.S. troops stationed in other countries for specific operations.
“When we need to do additional operations, we can surge assets into the country,” he said. “This has proven to be a successful tactic.”
Nicholson described the situation in Afghanistan as a “stalemate,” adding that the only way to break the stalemate is to increase the offensive capability of the Afghan forces.
In that vein, Nicholson asked Congress to invest more in the Afghan air force, though he didn’t offer a dollar figure on how much that investment could cost.
“This investment which we are requesting the Afghan air force will help them, as you mentioned, to take over responsibility for their own close air support,” he said. “And even more importantly, this then will to an offensive capability that allows them to overmatch the Taliban or any other group on the battlefield anywhere around the country.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the chairman of the committee and a critic of the Obama administration’s troops levels, said he hopes the new administration takes the “opportunity” to increase the troop commitment and give commanders more flexibility.
“This new administration has the opportunity to turn the page,” he said, “and finally give our commanders the resources and authorities they need to seize the initiative and force the enemy to react, instead of the other way around.”