A few thousand more troops are needed to help end the stalemate in Afghanistan, according to a senior U.S. military commander who also told lawmakers Thursday that Russian meddling is complicating the counterterrorism fight.
Army Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, didn't provide the Senate Armed Services Committee with an exact number of additional forces. But he said they could come from the United States or other countries in the American-led coalition in Afghanistan, where the war is now in its 16th year.
He said they are necessary to properly train and advise the Afghan military and perform work now handled at greater cost by contractors. There are currently about 8,400 U.S. troops conducting counterterrorism operations against insurgents and training the Afghan army.
Nicholson said he had discussed troop levels with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Nicholson said he believes the Trump administration will be open to a level based on requirements, rather than a predetermined figure. Republicans criticized President Barack Obama for trying, in their view, to cut the number too sharply before he left office Jan. 20.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the committee chairman, said after the hearing he will back Nicholson's request and called the boost a "penalty" to be paid for former President Barack Obama's refusal to commit enough forces.
"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," McCain told reporters.
But the idea of sending more Americans to the war zone may not go over well with a public frustrated by the length and cost of the conflict.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., citing figures from the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, said the war is costing U.S. taxpayers $13 million a day.
Nicholson also disclosed that a U.S. special forces soldier was "severely wounded" in fighting Thursday in Sangin, the Taliban heartland in southern Afghanistan.
He gave an example of how additional forces would be used. Nicholson said that because of troop level limits, the aviation brigade that deployed to Afghanistan was able to bring its helicopters, pilots and staff, but had to leave its mechanics behind at Fort Riley in Kansas. Contractors were hired instead at a cost of "tens of millions of dollars," forcing the soldier mechanics to sit at home, he said, and affecting the Army unit's readiness.
Nicholson said there is a 2-1 ratio of contractors to troops in Afghanistan.
In response to a question from Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Nicholson said he doesn't have enough troops to provide proper oversight of all those contractors.
Nicholson contended that Russia has been publicly legitimizing the Taliban by claiming that the militants are fighting Islamic terrorists while the Afghan government is not. He called that a "false narrative" and argued that Moscow's goal is to undermine the United States and NATO in Afghanistan.
Afghan security forces have reduced by one-half the number of IS fighters and by two-thirds the amount of territory the extremists hold, according to the commander.
He said declined to say in the open hearing whether Russia is providing support for the Taliban and in what way. Afterward, Nicholson told The Associated Press he was referring to classified intelligence. He would not discuss the matter further.
The Russians recently invited representatives from the Taliban, China, Pakistan and other countries in the region to Moscow for meetings about Afghanistan's future, but did not include officials from the Kabul government, Nicholson said.
"A peace and reconciliation process should be Afghan-led," the general said.
Despite Moscow's overtures, Nicholson said many Afghans don't view Russia favorably, dating to the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989.
Several Republican senators on Thursday urged President Donald Trump to pursue a "tough-minded and principled policy toward" Russia. They want Trump to maintain current U.S. sanctions against Russia, rebuke Moscow for its continued aggression in Ukraine, and not enter into any military or diplomatic agreement with Russia on Syria's future until Moscow ends its "support for the murderous regime" of President Bashar Assad.
Nicholson described the security situation in Afghanistan as a "stalemate."
"Can we win?" asked Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Yes, Nicholson said. He described victory as a stable, centralized Afghan government and destruction of al-Qaida and IS.
Leaving before then means it's "just a matter of time" before terrorists launch another attack on the United States from safe havens in Afghanistan, he said.