The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson told the Armed Services Committee he believes the U.S.-backed Afghan forces are “in a stalemate” in the 15 year-old war. He said to break that stalemate he needs “a few thousand” more soldiers to accompany the 8,400 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Nicholson faced questions Thursday from senators about the Trump administration’s plans for handling the long-running war in Afghanistan.
WATCH: Nicholson on Afghanistan
Nicholson said offensive capability is key to breaking the stalemate and while the additional U.S. troops would be involved in train, advice and assist missions, the Afghan Special Forces and Air force would be “vital” to success.
According to Nicholson, the Afghan forces operated independently 80 percent of the time last year, though they faced a higher number of casualties than in years past.
More than 6,700 Afghan soldiers were killed last year through November 12, according to a quarterly report published last month by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. That is more than the 6,600 soldiers killed in all of 2015.
Nicholson said he is “very concerned about the level of losses.” And while he said current recruiting levels allow the Afghan forces to replace soldiers who are killed, the military is not able to operate at its peak capability.
The report also noted the Afghan government is steadily losing control of areas within the country. According to the report, the government lost control of about 15 percent of the country’s districts between November 2015 and November 2016.
Nicholson said 20 of 98 designated terrorist groups operate in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, giving it the highest concentration of terror groups anywhere in the world.
Senator John McCain suggested that Russia is “playing a significant” role in Afghanistan and Nicholson agreed, saying that Russian meddling this year “has become more difficult.”
Nicholson said Russia has tried to publicly legitimize the Taliban by saying the extremist group is helping in the fight against IS, but he called this idea a “false narrative.”
According to Nicholson, Afghan security forces have eliminated about half of the IS group’s fighters and reduced the territory they hold by two-thirds.
Nicholson said he feared this public support could allow Taliban power to spill out of Afghanistan and into other countries as the group continues to gain territory.
In December, Nicholson said the Taliban controls about 10 percent of the population, while the Afghan government controls about two-thirds. The rest are contested.