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Special Operations commander: More troops would aid Afghanistan fight

The head of U.S. Special Operations Command, Army Gen. Raymond A. Thomas III, testifies before a congressional committee in Washington on May 2, 2017. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)

A decision to send additional American troops to Afghanistan, a possibility now being considered by the Trump White House, would provide a welcome boost to Special Operations activities there, a senior military official said Thursday.

Army Gen. Raymond A. “Tony” Thomas III, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), said that while no additional Special Operations troops are currently required, the introduction of more conventional troops, whose mission is focused on advising and supporting Afghan forces, would indirectly help special operators, who are tasked chiefly with tracking down al-Qaeda and other extremist fighters in a separate counterterrorism mission.

Giving testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Thomas suggested that an expanded training mission could lessen the need for U.S. Special Operations troops to conduct dangerous missions alongside local forces.

“More conventional forces that would thicken the ability to advise and assist Afghan forces — that would absolutely be to our benefit,” he said.

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The general’s remarks come as the White House considers steps to overhaul the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, where security has deteriorated more than 15 years after American troops were first sent to battle the Taliban, al-Qaeda and other militants.

Army Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has said that thousands of additional foreign troops are needed to help the Afghan government fend off a re-energized Taliban insurgency. Struggling to hold on to terrain in a conflict that U.S. officials have described as a stalemate, Afghanistan’s own forces are taking high casualties and grappling with persistent problems of corruption, desertion and skills gaps.

About three-quarters of the U.S. force of 8,400 stationed in Afghanistan is tasked with training and supporting local forces, while the remainder, largely Special Operations troops, take part in the counterterrorism mission.

In a sign of the challenges ahead, a Taliban attack killed more than 140 people at an Afghan army base last month shortly before Defense Secretary Jim Mattis paid a visit to evaluate conditions in the country.

Late last week, signaling the final stages of a policy review overseen by national security adviser H.R. McMaster, President Trump’s top advisers met to discuss the way ahead. The president, who has not spoken extensively about the conflict in Afghanistan, is expected to weigh in ahead of a NATO meeting he will attend May 25.

While President Obama’s approach to Afghanistan, following his 2009-2011 troop surge, was focused in large part on limiting the U.S. military footprint there, the Trump administration appears willing to commit greater military resources.

In keeping with its emphasis on doling out military burdens among allied nations, it is also seeking an increase in the number of NATO troops in Afghanistan.

Officials are looking not only at a potential troop increase, but also, in keeping with a general push to provide military officials greater flexibility, possible changes to rules that guide U.S. operations there. If approved, those steps could allow U.S. troops to conduct operations with Afghan forces in a wider array of situations and possibly increase the use of American air power.

Theresa Whelan, a senior Pentagon official who testified alongside Thomas, said the Trump administration was “actively looking at adjustments” to its approach to Afghanistan.

“I expect that these proposals will go to the president within the next week, and the intent is to do just that, to move beyond the stalemate,” she said.

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It is not clear whether the Trump administration’s review will produce significant changes to the political strategy for Afghanistan. While the United States has strongly backed the country’s unity government, it became less active in recent years in seeking to broker a peace agreement with the Taliban than it had been earlier in the Obama administration.

Thomas suggested that the United States needed to articulate a clearer goal for its involvement in Afghanistan. “I think the critical factor is the commitment — the commitment to some enduring state that has not been described effectively in the past,” he said.

The general spoke on an array of issues related to Special Operations activities, which account for 2 percent of military spending and personnel but has been spared the budget and personnel cuts experienced by other areas of the military.

In written testimony, the general addressed what he said was SOCOM’s growing focus on the threat posed by North Korea, which has made advances in its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

That has included maintaining a Special Operations presence on the Korean Peninsula and seeking means to ensure that SOCOM, recently put in charge of coordinating the U.S. response to threats from weapons of mass destruction, is ready to use its special operators effectively.