Top U.S. commander in Afghanistan opens door to more troops there

The top U.S. general overseeing coalition military operations in Afghanistan said Thursday he has a “shortfall of a few thousand” coalition troops, opening the door to more U.S. military advisers deploying to bolster training and advise Afghan security forces.

Army Gen. John Nicholson told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the additional advisers would be part of Operation Resolute Support, the coalition’s advising mission. Nicholson already has enough troops to run a separate counterterrorism operation in Afghanistan, he said, but more military advisers would bolster efforts to improve the country’s ministries and allow the coalition to train more troops below the “corps level,” which includes generals and other senior levels of the military.

“These contributions could come from our allies, as well as the United States,” Nicholson said. “We have identified the requirement, and the desire to advise below the corps levels. So, these additional forces would enable us to thicken our advisory effort across the Afghan ministries and do more advising below the corps level.”

Currently, there are about 8,400 U.S. service members deployed in Afghanistan, with about 6,800 assigned to Resolute Support and a few thousand carrying out counterterrorism operations. The total number of coalition troops deployed there is about 13,300.

Nicholson also said that Russia is increasingly working with the Taliban to undermine the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization militant alliance in Afghanistan despite the effect that narcotics peddled by the Taliban have on Russian society.

“This narrative that they promote is that the Taliban are fighting Islamic State and the Afghan government is not fighting Islamic State, and that therefore there could be spillover of this group into the region,” Nicholson said. “This is a false narrative.”

Nicholson’s testimony was his first before Congress since the Trump administration took over last month. Questioned by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R.-S.C., the general said he is hopeful the president is open to a more robust military effort that is “objectives-based.” Nicholson said he can definitely complete his mission with less than 50,000 coalition troops, but hesitated to say whether he would prefer to do so with less than 30,000. He’d want to check with other military officials in his chain of command before committing to answer, he said.

Nicholson said he is in discussions with other senior members of the U.S. military, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about what is needed in Afghanistan. Mattis is expected to travel to Europe next week and consult with allies.

(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Dan Lamothe