Home » Budget Industry » U.S. Commander in Afghanistan Tells Senate He Needs ‘A Few Thousand’ Troops to Break Stalemate


U.S. Commander in Afghanistan Tells Senate He Needs ‘A Few Thousand’ Troops to Break Stalemate

Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., addresses the audience during the change-of-command ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan, March 2, 2016. US Army Photo

Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., addresses the audience during the change-of-command ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan, March 2, 2016. US Army Photo

To break the military stalemate in Afghanistan, the commander of American and coalition forces there testified he needs “a few thousand” more troops for the train, advise and assist mission to succeed.

Army Gen. John Nicholson Jr., testifying Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in answer to a question the additional forces “can come from our NATO allies” to do more advisory missions below the corps level with Afghan aviation and special forces units.

“There is an urgency to this request,” Nicholson said, particularly in aviation for close air support of ground forces. He added he believed he has sufficient forces to meet the current counterterrorism mission.

Nicholson was reluctant to mention specific numbers when pressed by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

There are about 12,500 coalition forces, primarily from NATO countries, operating in Afghanistan now. Of those, 8,500 are Americans.

Graham asked Nicholson if 30,000 was enough and Nicholson said he would have to defer the answer to his chain of command.

“Offensive capabilities [aviation and special forces] will break the stalemate,” he told the panel.

He said the unity government under President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah controls 57 percent of the nation’s districts, down from 72 percent.

Chairman John McCain, (R-Ariz.) said in his opening statement, in calling for additional American or coalition forces and new authorities for their use, “I want to stress the point, the Afghans are in the fight.” The new authorities for Nicholson’s command McCain referred to were primarily aimed at Pakistan, where a number of terrorist groups operate. “These sanctuaries must be eliminated.”

As to why 300 Marines will be deployed to Helmand Province in the spring, Nicholson said, “We needed to go in there with a permanent structure” to assist the Afghans in cutting off the Taliban’s revenue from opium trafficking. He earlier characterized the Taliban as a “narco-insurgency” and acknowledged that poppy production was up., increasing the funds available to them.

“Marines have a lot of experience in Helmand,” a rural province in the southwestern part of the country, he said. They first began operating in Helmand in 2001 when the first American forces arrived in Afghanistan following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Gen. Robert Neller, commandant, said last month when the deployment was announced the Marines have “no delusions about the difficulty and the challenges they’re going to face.”

In answering questions about the size of the force and continuing operations, Nicholson estimated there are twice as many contractors working in Afghanistan as American forces. A number of these are working in aviation maintenance because of caps on troop levels. The result, he said, is that the costs are higher for the civilians and soldiers do not receive the practical experience they were trained for at a cost to overall service readiness.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, (D-Mo.), put the cost of the contractors in Afghanistan at $100 billion over the last five years.

US Marines during a mission in Helmand province, Afghanistan, April 28, 2014. US Marine Corps Photo

US Marines during a mission in Helmand province, Afghanistan, April 28, 2014. US Marine Corps Photo

“I would rather see soldiers doing what soldiers are trained to do,” Nicholson said in response.

While Afghanistan has authorized its security forces end strength to exceed 350,000, the high casualties they are suffering, especially in its Special Forces units, means they are barely replacing combat losses.

In addition, “ghost soldiers” and “ghost police” are a continuing problem that Nicholson said is now being addressed. He said there were “tens of thousands fewer soldiers in the field than reported.”

The “ghost soldier” figure came from the latest report of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, issued in January.

Nicholson listed this as the second leading deficiency in the Afghan security forces. He put “failure of leaders in battle” as the most serious deficiency and lack of manpower for security checkpoints as third.

The United States “is withholding funds for soldiers we cannot biometrically account for” and not just paying for names appearing on unit rosters. The United States is paying the soldiers’ and police forces’ salaries.

He said the government and the United States are also taking steps “to better follow the money” in the Afghan logistics supply chain in a stronger effort to cut down corruption in that area.

Nicholson termed the government “a partner who will go boldly” after corruption and “a population and government who want to work with us” in defeating the Taliban and other terrorists.

Nicholson said the Afghans and Pakistanis are having to contend with 20 of the 98 State Department designated terrorist organizations, such as the Taliban, the Haqqani Network al Qaeda and others operating inside its borders or crossing over from Pakistan. With 200 million people and 70 percent of the population below 30 in both countries, “the conditions in the region lead to growth” in these organizations, a number of them willing to strike the United States, Nicholson said. Sen. Angus King, (I-Maine), called it a “petri dish” for terrorism.

The general termed the recent Russian involvement in Afghanistan as “publicly legitimizing the Taliban,” and he doubted whether Moscow was fighting the Islamic State affiliate centered on Khorasan Province.

Shia Iran, he added, is assisting the Sunni Taliban primarily in the western part of Afghanistan. ironically, he said Iran is also recruiting in those same provinces fighters to battle the Sunni Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. In addition, Tehran is financing fighters in the northern provinces of the country and Kabul, the capital, against the government.

The common goal of Iran and Russia is “to undermine the United States and NATO” in Afghanistan.

“We believe our operations in Afghanistan directly protect the United States homeland,” he said in answer to a question about the value of continuing the fight after 15 years. He cited the recent killing of a senior al Qaeda official in Afghanistan who was plotting an attack on the United States. “Our objective is to destroy them.”

  • Donald Carey

    A reassessment of their Rules of Engagement could prove rewarding…take off the binders!

    • old guy

      My statement was,” We never lost a war before, nor won one, after, ROE.
      I helped write the handbook ,”Limited War” for the Aberdeen Limited War Lab, in 1957. It warned against the failure caused by the ROE in Korea.

  • Duane

    This appears to be a situation where the SecDef needs to weigh in with his strategy and plan for winning the battles in Afghanistan, rather than leave it to the field commander to try and convince the Congress. NATO needs to weigh in as well since they have a dog in the fight, and the same threats from Islamist insurgents in Afghanistan also threaten the other members of NATO just as they threaten the US homeland.

    Inasmuch as the new administration is only a few weeks old and the new SecDef doesn’t have his new team in place yet, General Nicholson is unfortunately left to fight a “rear guard action” with Congress. Perhaps if Mattis doesn’t like the notion of an ongoing stalemate in Afghanistan, he should be getting in front of Congress and with NATO in the very near future.

    • incredulous1

      It would be a hard sell to convince NATO that they actually have a dog in this fight, even though they have in the past couple years been hit by terrorists. They just don’t have the psyche or the budget for this and they totally bought into the concept that it’s “not a existential threat.”

      • Duane

        NATO already has a dog in this fight, and have had so continuously for over 15 years now. NATO officially runs the show in Afghanistan, and its non-US members provide about 25% of the manpower and equipment. Afghanistan is and remains the only instance in the history of the alliance in which its Article Five mutual defense clause was triggered. And in terms of recent history, Europe has suffered far larger attacks by Islamist terrorists on their soil in just the last couple of years than have the Americans ever since 9.11.01.

  • incredulous1

    the previous Admin seemed to be OK with a stalemate, but we must now redefine our goals and what success looks like, and get it on and make some serious headway and the let the UN make itself useful, with the caveat that if they allow it to get out of hand again, they will suffer a serious strike, but no more boots on the ground again other than FACs.

  • John B. Morgen

    The United States is going to need at least 25,000 combat troops; plus, armor and other supporting units.

    • old guy

      We ought to have Congress declare WAR on ISIS/ISIL, and mount a proper campaign, or get off the pot and watch the moslems send their “Fifth Column” (you young guys can look it up) throughout the world.

      • John B. Morgen

        Indeed, Congress should declare war on ISIS, and mount a true campaign against this enemy;plus, reinstate the Draft or National service.

        • old guy

          Right on.

          • John B. Morgen

            It is the only way to reduce the amount of years of fighting, based from the said projections that will end ISIS.

          • Centaurus

            OK, I volunteer the 2 of you for duty

          • old guy

            I am 90, and I VOLUNTEERED and was inducted in March, 1945. Now it’s your turn.

  • TheTruth

    If the US is paying the bills, is seeing a failure of leaders in battle and Iran and Russia are undermining the efforts of the Coalition, I’d find it hard to believe that Afghanistan won’t be another Iraq, Syria or Yemen; completely out of control. When do we stop continuously pour money into a failing government?

  • Hunter Freeman

    When has extensive and lengthy military intervention by the US advanced our national security goals? (post WWII) Is it possible to change the culture of the Afghan (or any other) people to that of a global culture in this way? Is the only option to pour more blood and money into this bottomless hole?

    • CBCalif

      Excellent question rarely, if ever, considered. For Afghanistan, the standard (de facto) War Hawk response has been some words to the effect noting we have to remain [mired] in Afghanistan because that’s where Bin Laden had his headquarters on 9/11 ….. Let’s hope the AQ boys don’t establish HQ’s in any other / or too many other lands or we will become mired in those lands — occupying them.

      • old guy

        The death of Bin Laden was promulgated by his resistance to the ISIL idea and the end of his usefulness to the cause of spreading islam throughout the world.
        Remember, Census 1940 moslems, fewer than 5,000;
        2010, 6,000,000+ check it out.
        ALSO, read my book,”American-muslim WW2 heroes. It only takes a few seconds.

    • old guy

      Of course, your statement is correct, but were it not for a cowardly Congress and later, a hapless President, the outcomes could have been sizably different

  • CBCalif

    The response to any General claiming they need just a few thousand more to win in Afghanistan should include a statement to the effect they must specifically define success and the date by which all objectives will be achieved; they must identify which type of forces they need, numbers, and time frame; and a notation if their plan is accepted they must remain in theater (no leave and unaccompanied) until success. Also, no additional men or resources beyond that specified.

    Finally, they should be told if they don’t achieve their objectives by the time frame noted they will demoted to 0-5 and retired and the U.S will withdraw its forces and that failure will be noted in their record — they won’t receive one of those standard B.S. Medals a retiring Flag Officer receives.

    We will receive a much different response from Generals if the above standard were applied.

    • Mikronos

      They did that – to Obama. One year, 30 000 boots and another billion dollars. At the end of a 18 months they wasted everything they ‘had to abandon’ when the Surge was withdrawn. NATO withdrew and the mission morphed yet once again.

      And since it was such an obvious failure to win (loss), Obama mandated 6 more years of US involvement. . Trump has tweaked that again just for General soapy who’s promising a holy ‘mackerel. .

  • old guy

    When have you heard a General ask for fewer troops?