President Trump could be asked next week to send more troops to Afghanistan as the 16-year war grinds on in a bloody stalemate.
The U.S. commander in Afghanistan wants 3,000 more troops and Pentagon officials told Congress this week that the war plan recommendations being sent to Trump are aimed at moving “beyond the stalemate” with the ISIS-affiliated Taliban insurgency.
Afghan soldiers are suffering what Pentagon auditors call "shockingly high" battlefield casualties, and prospects are narrowing for a negotiated peace settlement with the Taliban. The insurgents may have failed to capture and hold a major city, but they are controlling or influencing ever more territory.
"The situation is deteriorating," said Stephen Biddle, a George Washington University professor and close Afghan war observer.
This grim picture forms the backdrop for administration deliberations on a way ahead in Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are supporting beleaguered Afghans against the Taliban insurgency and stepping up attacks on an extremist group considered an Islamic State affiliate. The three most recent U.S. deaths in Afghanistan were in combat last month against the IS affiliate, which also was the target of a much-publicized U.S. airstrike April 13 using the "mother of all bombs."
Army Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has asked the Pentagon for 3,000 more U.S. and allied troops to bolster support for the Afghan army.
But his request took a back seat to a broader administration review of Afghan policy and a push for NATO to contribute more troops. Both of those matters will be discussed at a NATO summit May 25.
The U.S. says it has 8,400 troops in Afghanistan, one-quarter of which are for the counterterrorism mission.
Biddle told the AP the Taliban have little incentive to negotiate a peace deal and "the battlefield trend is against it."
Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Afghan forces aren't capable of securing the country. Unless Trump adopts "a far more decisive approach," security could collapse "either slowly and painfully over years or as a result of some shattering military defeat or critical political power struggle at the top that divides the security forces and the country," he said.
Gen. Raymond Thomas, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, told senators Thursday that beyond more troops, there could be changes in what the military calls "rules of engagement," laying out when force can be used. The U.S. combat role officially ended in December 2014. Thomas' troops operate separately, targeting al-Qaida and ISIS fighters. He says he has enough troops.
Referring to the stalemate, Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) told Thomas, “If the present status quo prevails, then there's no end to it.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.