An Afghan soldier uses his weapon among smoke and rubble after an attack by Islamic State militants in the Chaparhar district of Nangahar province, Afghanistan, on May 21. (Ghulamullah Habibi/European Pressphoto Agency)

As the Trump administration nears a decision on whether to send several thousand more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, a move that could be announced at an upcoming NATO summit in Brussels, U.S. military officials here say the plan would include sending hundreds of American Special Operations troops to train up to 17,000 new members of Afghan special forces, an elite group seen as key to beating back a growing Taliban insurgency.

The additional foreign troops would not be involved directly in combat, the officials said. But they believe that a burst of intensive support for the struggling Afghan defense forces, with a focus on maximizing their best assets, could break the current stalemate in the nearly 16-year war and improve chances for a peaceful settlement — without introducing an intrusive foreign military presence just 2½ years after NATO combat troops withdrew.   

“The end state is reconciliation with the Taliban, not a return to an ISAF and American combat role against the Taliban,” said U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Patrick J. Donahoe, referring to the International Security Assistance Force, the previous U.S.-led NATO mission in Afghanistan. “We want the Afghan government to be in a position of authority when the talks start,” said Donahoe, a senior planner in Kabul for the current NATO mission, called Resolute Support.

 In describing their plans, U.S. military officials here took pains to emphasize the limited size and role of any forces added to the NATO mission, and they noted that only about half of the new troops would be American. The rest would come from other countries that contribute to Resolute Support.

Afghan children walk past security force personnel as they leave a village during an operation against Islamic State militants in the Chaparhar district of Nangahar province on May 21. (Noorullah Shirzada/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

Currently, the United States contributes about 6,700 of the 12,400 foreign troops here, followed by Germany, Italy, Georgia and 35 other countries. The U.S. portion is not likely to change, meaning that if 3,000 new troops were sent to Afghanistan, about 1,500 would be from the United States.

“This is not going to be even a mini-surge,” said Navy Capt. William Salvin, senior spokesman for the U.S. military here. He said that NATO officials have already approved more than 15,000 total slots for Resolute Support this year and that adding 3,000-plus would not pass that ceiling. 

Resolute Support is separate from a U.S. counterterrorism mission in which about 2,100 Special Operations troops fight alongside Afghan commandos in raids against Islamic State militants and other international fighters. That force is not expected to grow, and new service members who join Resolute Support would not be permitted to fight.

The current orders for Resolute Support are to “train, advise and assist” Afghan security forces, and that will not change with the addition of more troops, officials here said. Their short-term goal would be to improve the combat ability of Afghanistan’s 352,000-member security forces; the long-term aim would be to make them self-sufficient by 2020, a timetable set by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

The immediate need, officials said, is to push back harder against the Taliban. The Islamist insurgents have been steadily gaining territory since the departure of most foreign troops at the end of 2014, causing record casualties among Afghan civilians and security forces, and repeatedly attacking scattered provincial capitals. Repeated efforts to hold peace talks with the Taliban have foundered.

 Some Afghans have objected strongly to the possible deployment of more foreign troops, in part because their presence draws terrorist attacks and their permanent withdrawal has been a major demand by the Taliban. Ghani said recently that there is “no global appetite” and “no Afghan appetite” for the resumption of a large-scale foreign military presence, which peaked at more than 130,000 troops in 2012.

In April, an American soldier patrols in the Asad Khil village near the site of a U.S. bombing in the Achin district of Jalalabad, east of Kabul. (Rahmat Gul/AP)

But the Afghan president has been working privately on the plan with Gen. John W. Nicholson, the senior U.S. commander here, who told the Senate Armed Services Committee in February that the Afghan war is “at a stalemate” and that “a few thousand” more troops are needed to help break it. Ghani has since said that the “numbers proposed are the right numbers,” and U.S. military officials said key elements of Nicholson’s plan closely track Ghani’s concerns and suggestions.

There are no plans to build any new foreign military bases or compounds, or to have foreign troops stationed at dangerous remote outposts, as was often the case until 2014. The great majority would live at existing major U.S. and foreign bases in Kabul and Bagram, a huge American compound and airfield north of the capital. 

“We are not expanding the military footprint, we are thickening it,” Salvin said, referring to plans to have more trainers and advisers working directly with Afghan troops and officers in lower-level units, rather than being limited to dealing with senior officers. All 11 of the country’s military and police academies, he said, are in the capital.

One top priority is to quickly expand the size and capacity of the Afghan special forces — highly trained commandos who have often had to replace or rescue regular Afghan troops in battle crises. About 17,000 regular soldiers would be moved into the special forces, doubling their size. They would be trained by hundreds
of international Special Operations forces, mostly Americans, who would account for about 25 percent of all new foreign troops. 

A second priority is to improve the effectiveness of regular army and police forces, which have struggled with a variety of problems from illiteracy to corruption, and whose members often fail to reenlist. As with the special forces, the new foreign advisers would be able to work more closely with military and police officers at the brigade level.

Another continuing job would be to provide air support for ground troops, medical evacuation and troop transport, as well as to improve the effectiveness of the Afghan air force, ultimately allowing its fighter pilots to totally replace Americans. Afghan officials have repeatedly said that better air support alone would make a critical difference in the war effort, and Nicholson has called it a key “offensive capability.” 

A new focus would be to attack corruption, incompetence and poor coordination among Afghan security agencies — shortcomings that Ghani and U.S. officials have identified as major problems. New foreign instructors at army and police academies would focus on these issues, and U.S. advisers would work with Afghan officials to weed out corruption, notably by requiring biometric military enrollment to reduce the large number of “ghost soldiers” being paid with U.S. funds. 

“The two existential threats to the Afghan state are the Taliban and corruption inside the security forces,” said Donahoe. Efforts to professionalize and motivate the country’s defense forces, he said, “would be for naught if the leaders are corrupt and inept.” Ghani, in a startling speech this month, slammed the Defense and Interior ministries as “the most corrupt” in government, and he recently replaced dozens of senior security officials, including the defense minister. 

The additional foreign troops would also fill technical and support roles, especially an aviation brigade that repairs and maintains U.S.-made military helicopters and other aircraft. Most would be rejoining their own military units and replacing highly paid private contractors, who are hired mainly to keep the level of U.S. deployed forces at or below approved levels.