WASHINGTON – The United States has enough troops to complete its mission in Afghanistan as the military prepares to drop it’s force by 1,400 troops come early 2017, the top U.S. commander in the country said Friday.
“My assessment of our current capabilities is that we have adequate resources to conduct this mission at a moderate level of risk going forward,” Gen. John Nicholson Jr. told reporters while visiting the Pentagon. “This is acceptable for what we need to conduct our mission.”
The U.S. is working to drop the force level from 9,800 troops to 8,400 before President-elect Donald Trump takes office on Jan. 20, under a plan President Barack Obama laid out in July.
The reduction in troops will not pull from capabilities, officials have said, but rather move administrative service members out of the country. The force level would also be supplemented by hiring contractors.
Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.), the chairwoman of Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, said Thursday that she hoped the Trump administration would review the troop levels. She critiqued the drawdown as being costly — saying that some specialists, like aircraft mechanics, would be sent home, letting their skills atrophy while the military pays a contractor to do the same job.
The 15-year-old war, the nation’s longest, didn’t appear to be a priority throughout the presidential campaign. President-elect Trump has voiced few opinions publicly about what the U.S. role would be there during his administration. Nicholson declined to provide advice to the incoming administration.
Nicholson said the expanded authorities Obama granted in June — allowing U.S. troops to accompany conventional Afghan forces into the field, rather than only special operators, and proactively provide close air support to strike Taliban targets — are being used daily.
“The package of authorities that we have is adequate for us to do our job,” he said. “We’d like to be able to continue to use those authorities.”
U.S. forces are operating in Afghanistan in two primary roles — a U.S.-only counter-terrorism mission that targets al Qaeda and ISIS-affiliated forces and a larger NATO mission to train, advise and assist Afghan forces, who took over combat operations in 2014.
There are some 6,000 additional non-U.S. international troops participating in the NATO mission.
Nicholson characterized the current state of the conflict as “an equilibrium, but one that’s in favor of the [Afghan] government.”
Kabul now controls about 64 percent of the country’s population of 30 million, he said, down slightly from 68 percent he cited in September. The change constitutes more contested areas, rather than greater Taliban control, Nicholson said. The Taliban controls less than 10 percent of the population, he said.
“If I were to characterize how the Afghan security forces performed last year, I would say they were tested and they prevailed,” Nicholson said. “This year, they went into the year with a campaign plan which last year was more of a reaction to enemy activity.”
Despite more than 5,000 combat casualties this year among the Afghan security forces, they were able fend off all eight Taliban attacks on major population centers, Nicholson said.
“This is a sign of an army that’s growing in capability, that’s maturing in terms of its ability to handle [simultaneous attacks] and complexity on the battlefield,” he said.
Nicholson said he is concerned about divisions in the Afghan government, and said corruption and incompetent leadership within the ranks still pose real problems.
“In addition to improving the corruption and leadership situation, we also obviously are concerned about the stability of the Afghan government going forward,” he said. “One possible risk of Afghan political instability is a fracture, but we have not seen this happen within the security forces.”
He said that this winter, Afghan leaders will focus on boosting the ranks of the about 17,000 special forces, who conduct 70 percent of the military’s offensive missions.
Nicholson blasted the “malign influence” of “external actors,” including Pakistan, Russia and Iran, for “legitimizing” and enabling the Taliban.
“Russia has overtly lent legitimacy to the Taliban,” Nicholson said, propagating the narrative that the Taliban is fighting ISIS.
“This public legitimacy that Russia lends to the Taliban is not based on fact, but it is used as a way to essentially undermine the Afghan government and the NATO effort … so it’s not helpful.”
U.S. troops have been in Afghanistan for more than 15 years, since the U.S. invaded the country following the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. The U.S.-led intervention toppled the Taliban government, which harbored al Qaeda, the architects of the attacks.