The commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan said Thursday that the war is in a "stalemate" and efforts to turn the situation around on the ground are being complicated by growing Russian support for the Taliban.
To underline the difficulty of the fight, Army Gen. John Nicholson said he learned just before the start of a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that a U.S. Special Forces soldier had been severely wounded in a firefight in the flashpoint Sangin area of Afghanistan's southwestern Helmand province, the center of the country's flourishing poppy trade.
Controlling Helmand, possibly the most contested of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, was long the mission of U.S. Marines and British forces before their withdrawal in 2014. Nicholson said the plan to send about 300 Marines back into Helmand on a training and advisory mission would help the struggling 215th Corps of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) in regaining territory lost to the Taliban.
Helmand is the main source of the Taliban's "narco insurgency" against the Afghan government, Nicholson said, adding, "This is where they get their money."
Nicholson said he had personally reached out to Commandant Gen. Robert Neller to ask for assistance since "the Marine Corps has deep experience in Helmand."
Nicholson said he expected the 300 Marines to arrive in the spring to provide "a more structured advisory effort than we've had to this point" with the 215th Corps and its new commanders. Previous commanders of the 215th were sacked because of corruption and poor leadership.
At the opening of the hearing, Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and the committee chairman, asked Nicholson, "Are we winning or losing?"
Nicholson replied: "Mr. Chairman, I believe we are in a stalemate," but the stalemate is one in which the "equilibrium favors the government" and the ANDSF.
However, Nicholson did not dispute the recent report from the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) that the Taliban made significant gains on the ground and inflicted heavy casualties on Afghan forces during 2016. The SIGAR report said that the Afghan territory controlled by the Kabul government had been reduced from 72 percent to 57 percent.
McCain said that limits on the force size and restrictive rules of engagement had "unfortunately tied the hands of our military in Afghanistan and, instead of trying to win, we settle for not trying to lose."
To break the stalemate, Nicholson, commander of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan and NATO's Resolute Support mission, said that he had discussed with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford the possibility of putting more troops into Afghanistan, either from the U.S. or from NATO and other countries from the coalition.
Currently, the U.S. is limited to about 8,400 troops in Afghanistan; the total force under Nicholson's command is about 12,500.
"I have adequate resourcing in my counterterrorism mission," the main mission of U.S. troops, he said. "In my train, advise and assist mission, we have a shortfall of a few thousand."
In the course of the hearing, Nicholson returned several times to the new threat of Russian influence in Afghanistan that he said began to surface last year. Afghanistan was already struggling with a resilient insurgency, political corruption, a failing economy and ethnic rivalries, and now Russia is using its influence "to prop up the Taliban," he said.
"I think it's to undermine the United States and NATO," Nicholson said when asked for his thoughts on Russia's motives. He also said Moscow is concerned about the possible spread of unrest from Afghanistan to central Asian states on its borders. He pointed to recent talks in Moscow of representatives of the Taliban and Iran from which the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani was excluded.
"The Russians, of course, lack legitimacy in Afghanistan" following the brutal occupation by the Soviet Union in the 1980s, Nicholson said, but their propaganda line has been that the U.S. is ignoring the offshoot of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, known as the Islamic State-Khorasan province, that now has a foothold in southeastern Nangarhar province.
The Russian effort to destabilize the Kabul government is just one of several issues stemming from the U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, now in its 16th year, that will have to be faced by the new administration of President Donald Trump, Nicholson said.
Another is the fallout on Afghanistan from Trump's travel ban on seven predominantly Muslim countries, including Iraq.
Under questioning from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat, Nicholson expressed concern for those who may be impacted by cutbacks in the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program for interpreters and others who aided U.S. forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
"My understanding is that we are going to run out of visas for Afghans" under the SIV program, Shaheen said.
"We do have a backlog," Nicholson said. "We're strong supporters of this program because of those brave Afghans who fought alongside us, served alongside us."
Cutting off or limiting the SIV program "would be the wrong message to send to our Afghan partners," he said.
The Afghan war, America's longest, received scant attention from Trump and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the election campaign, and Trump made only a passing reference to Afghanistan in his first visit to a military base as commander in chief last week at U.S. Central Command in Florida.
Trump expressed his gratitude to "everyone serving overseas, including our military personnel in Afghanistan."
On Jan. 27, Trump gave Mattis 30 days to come up with a plan to speed up the campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, but there has been no sign as yet from the White House on a similar plan for Afghanistan.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.