The next "surge" is imminent.
The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army General John Nicholson, said on Thursday he is short "several thousand" troops in order to break a stalemate in a war with Taliban insurgents, signaling the matter may soon be put before President Donald Trump.
"I have adequate resourcing in my counterterrorism mission. In my train, advise and assist mission, however, we have a shortfall of a few thousand," Nicholson, who leads U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Nicholson’s testimony before the committee is the first since President Trump’s inauguration, providing much needed color into how the new commander in chief might handle a war that received little attention on the campaign trail. At this moment there are about 8,400 U.S. troops in Afghanistan tasked with 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. As The Hill writes, former President Obama had initially planned to draw down that number to 5,500, but decided instead to set the troop numbers at 8,400.
So why the need for more troops? Nicholson described the situation in Afghanistan as a “stalemate," adding that the only the way to break the stalemate is to increase the offensive capability of the Afghan forces. As a result, Nicholson asked Congress to invest more in the Afghan air force, though he didn't offer a dollar figure on how that investment should 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.”
This was music to the ears of perpetual warhawk John McCain, the chairman of the committee and a critic of the Obama administration's troops levels, who said he hopes the new administration take 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.”
McCain's endorsement of Nicholson's request may be a problem: on Thursday morning Trump revived his feud with McCain, tweeting that the Arizona senator “doesn't know how to win anymore” and shouldn’t have called a U.S. raid in Yemen a failure.
“Sen. McCain should not be talking about the success or failure of a mission to the media. Only emboldens the enemy! He's been losing so long he doesn't know how to win anymore,” Trump wrote in a series of tweets Thursday morning. “Just look at the mess our country is in - bogged down in conflict all over the place. Our hero Ryan died on a winning mission ( according to General Mattis), not a 'failure.' Time for the U.S. to get smart and start winning again!”