WASHINGTON -- A top U.S. commander says the war against Taliban fighters in Afghanistan has ground to a stalemate.
General John Nicholson also told the Senate Armed Services Committee on February 9 that Russia had significantly increased covert and overt support for the Taliban, with a goal of “undermining the United States and NATO."
The assessment by Nicholson, the commander of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, was one of the most candid admissions by U.S. officials that the fight there faces problems.
There are some 8,400 U.S. troops remaining in Afghanistan since most NATO forces withdrew in 2014.
Since then, however, Afghan forces have struggled to fend off the Taliban, which has gained control of more territory than at any time since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
Nicholson said Afghan forces had suffered significant casualties, impeding their ability to reach full strength. He said he would need several thousand more troops -- U.S. and other countries' forces -- in order to break the stalemate.
The Afghan forces remained hamstrung by corruption and leadership problems, stemming from an entrenched patronage system, he said.
Fighting has been particularly difficult in the southern Helmand Province, where Taliban fighters have seized a sizable amount of territory. Local officials estimate the Taliban now controls 85 percent of the poppy-growing province, up from just 20 percent a year ago.
Last month, U.S. officials announced that 300 Marines would be deploying to help train and advise local security forces. It is the first Marine deployment to Helmand since the U.S. drawdown in 2014 when the United States announced the end of its combat role in Afghanistan.
Moscow -- which fears instability in the Central Asian nations located between Russia and Afghanistan -- has been a lukewarm ally of U.S. coalition efforts there, allowing its territory to be used to transport personnel and materiel.
Since 2016, however, Russia’s role has shifted, Nicholson said, to giving support to the Taliban, though he declined to answer senators’ questions about the scope of that support.
He also said Moscow was giving the Taliban legitimacy by saying its militants are fighting Islamic terrorists while the Afghan government is not. He said that is a "false narrative."
He said Russia recently invited members of the Taliban to Moscow for meetings about Afghanistan’s future but didn't include representatives from the Afghan government. Representatives from Pakistan, China, and other regional countries also were invited, he said.
Iran and Pakistan, which has long had intelligence ties to the Taliban, had also significantly complicated the fight waged by the Afghan military, Nicholson said.
Nicholson said that the Haqqani network still has safe havens in Pakistan and that Washington should review its relationship with Islamabad.