Gen. John Nicholson Sees 'Stalemate' in Afghanistan

By Susan Jones | February 9, 2017 | 11:19 AM EST

General John Nicholson, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, testified at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on U.S.-led military operations in Afghanistan on Feb. 9, 2017. (Screen capture from C-SPAN).

( - Is the United States winning or losing in Afghanistan? Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, asked the commander of U.S. forces in that country.

"Mr. Chairman, I believe we're in a stalemate," Gen. John Nicholson replied.

In his opening statement to the committee, Nicholson said he remains concerned about "multiple critical factors," specifically the stability of the Afghan government; heavy casualties among the Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces; the influence of external actors on Afghanistan, including Pakistan, Russia, and Iran; and the convergence of 20 terrorist groups and three violent extremist organizations operating in the region.

"Other non-military factors such as the economy, governance and corruption, demographics, reconciliation and reintegration, and the influence of the narcotics trade also affect this mission and underscore the need to employ all instruments of U.S. national power with those of our Allies and partners," Nicholson wrote.

Asked how many more troops he needs to reverse the stalemate, Nicholson said he has enough troops to fulfill the U.S. counterterrorism mission.

"In my train-advise-assist mission, however, we have a shortfall of a few thousand. And this is in the NATO train-advise-assist mission, so this could come from the U.S. and its allies." Right now, around 8,400 U.S. troops are in Afghanistan to conduct counterterrorism or training missions.

Nicholson said that "offensive capability" -- Afghan special forces and an Afghan air force -- would also help break the stalemate in Afghanistan. 

The U.S. Defense Department in November 2016 submitted a $814.5 million funding request to replace Afghanistan's "unsustainable" Russian-manufactured aircraft fleet and make up for combat losses in Afghan transport helicopters by providing U.S. Army UH-60s.

"This investment that we are requesting in the Afghan Air Force will help take over responsibility for their own close air support, and even more importantly, this then will lead to an offensive capability that allows them to overmatch the Taliban or any other group on the battlefield, anywhere around the country," Nicholson said.

But he also said a fully operational Afghan Air Force is still some years away. Nicholson said it will take approximately 21 months from the initial funding approval to field the first refurbished and upgraded UH-60.

McCain said he's proud that some Afghan fighter pilots are now training in F-16s in Tucson, Arizona, and he said "it might be nice" if other Afghan pilots could come here to train.

Nicholson also told the committee that it's very difficult to succeed on the battlefield when the enemy finds safe haven in neighboring Pakistan.

And on the topic of "external actors," Nicholson said Russia's involvement in Afghanistan "has become more difficult" this year.

"First, they have begun to publicly legitimize the Taliban. This narrative that they promote is that the Taliban are fighting Islamic State and the Afghan government is not fighting Islamic State...This is a false narrative. The Afghan government, along with U.S. counterterrorism forces, are successfully fighting against Islamic State in Afghanistan."

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