Russia, Pakistan and Iran are working to “legitimize and support” the Taliban in Afghanistan, according to the top U.S. military commander in the war zone, who told lawmakers Thursday that thousands more American or NATO troops are needed to break the “stalemate” between Afghan forces and the insurgent group while the Islamic State also remains active in the nation.
Army Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr. told the Senate Armed Services Committee that outside powers led by Russia have increased their interference in the Afghanistan fighting over the past year, greatly complicating the task for the U.S.-backed government in Kabul.
The general offered a sobering assessment of the 15-year-old U.S. mission in Afghanistan at a moment of growing uncertainty over how the Trump administration may seek to reshape U.S. strategy in the conflict.
President Trump so far has focused heavily on fighting the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. He has mandated that a fresh plan be developed within 30 days to defeat the terrorist group but has said little about Afghanistan despite the ongoing battle against a defiant Islamic State affiliate there and a growing surge by the Taliban.
While President Obama declared the official combat mission in Afghanistan over in 2014, roughly 13,000 international troops — about 8,400 of them American — remain in the country.
Asked Thursday whether Mr. Trump is considering deploying more troops to Afghanistan, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said a decision has not been made and suggested that it will depend on Defense Secretary James N. Mattis, a retired Marine general who oversaw the Afghanistan mission as head of U.S. Central Command from 2010 to 2013.
“I think the president will heed the advice of the generals and Secretary Mattis,” Mr. Spicer said. “That conversation has yet to happen.”
Gen. Nicholson told the Senate panel that he is increasingly wary of Russian, Iranian and Pakistani meddling and that Moscow has pushed a “false narrative” to “publicly legitimize” the Taliban against a shaky Afghan government.
“The Russian involvement this year has become more difficult,” said the general. “This narrative that they promote is that the Taliban are fighting the Islamic State and the Afghan government is not fighting the Islamic State, and therefore there can be a spillover of this group into the region.”
To the contrary, he asserted, U.S.-trained Afghan government forces, along with American counterterrorism units, have made significant gains against the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan, reducing its fighters by half and cutting its territory by two-thirds over the past year.
But Gen. Nicholson openly acknowledged the growing difficulty of waging a simultaneous campaign against the Taliban, which the U.S. and its allies have fought for more than a decade on grounds that it harbored al Qaeda during the lead-up to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
During an exchange with committee Chairman John McCain, Arizona Republican, Gen. Nicholson acknowledged that the fight against the Taliban had reached “a stalemate.”
Gen. Nicholson acknowledged a Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) assessment that Taliban forces have come to control roughly 15 percent more territory today than they did two years ago. The gains have coincided with failed international diplomatic efforts to broker peace talks with the Taliban.
While neighboring Pakistan has supported the talks, Gen. Nicholson expressed frustration that Taliban fighters and the elusive Taliban-aligned Haqqani network continue to find sanctuary across the border in tribal areas of northwestern Pakistan.
He praised the Pakistanis for waging a counterterrorism campaign in the tribal areas during recent years but stressed that “we need to do a holistic review of our Pakistan policy.”
Sen. Tim Kaine, Virginia Democrat, cited comments by Mr. Trump suggesting that the U.S. could work with Russia in the fight against Islamic State in the Middle East and curb Iran’s influence in Syria and Afghanistan. The general replied, “That hasn’t been something we’ve looked at as an option.”
The general said Iran and Afghanistan do have shared areas of interest, including water rights, trade and counternarcotics. “I think the Afghans are trying to establish a state-to-state relationship with Iran to deal with these matters of mutual concern,” Gen. Nicholson said.
Meanwhile, there are fresh signs of security problems in Afghanistan.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said Thursday that it was halting its activities in the nation after six of its workers were killed in an ambush on their convoy in the northern Afghan province of Jowzjan. Afghan police said they suspect the ambush was carried out by the Islamic State.
On Wednesday, a suicide bomb tore through a crowd of Afghan Supreme Court employees in the capital city of Kabul, killing at least 20 people and wounding dozens more.
A report issued Monday by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, meanwhile, said there were more civilian casualties in the war-torn nation in 2016 than any other year since the organization began tracking the statistic in 2009. Roughly a third of some 11,500 noncombatants killed or wounded over the past year were children. The leading cause of the casualties was fighting between Afghan security forces and militants, including the Taliban, the United Nations said.
Afghan security forces have sustained heavy casualties over the past two years. SIGAR has said that more than 5,500 were killed during an eight-month period of 2016. The Military Times reported Thursday that while the Afghan National Army has more than 350,000 troops, a much smaller contingent of 17,000 Afghan Special Forces personnel conducted 70 percent of all offensive operations last year.
Gen. Nicholson said one of the main focuses of the U.S. mission is to “increase the size of the Afghan Special Forces, because these units have proven so effective on the battlefield.”
⦁ Dave Boyer contributed to this report.