US reaches stalemate in Afghanistan; McCain blasts Trump over Muslim travel ban

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan told Congress on Thursday that coalition forces have reached a stalemate in efforts to curb Taliban control of the country, stating Pakistan is one of the biggest hindrances to that effort.

“It’s very difficult to succeed on the battlefield when your enemy enjoys external support and safe haven,” Gen. John Nicholson told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “We need to continue to work closely with Pakistan.”

In addition, because U.S.-backed Afghani forces have sustained such high casualties, one of the two coalition operations needs a few thousand more troops and training to strengthen its air force, which will require additional funding from Congress, said Nicholson, who recently took command of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.       

Slowing efforts to build Afghanistan’s air capabilities is the travel ban placed on seven Muslim-majority nations, including Afghanistan, said Republican Sen. John McCain.   

His home state of Arizona hosts a training site for Afghani F-16 pilots, he said.

“It would be nice if they could come to the Unites States to train, which they are not allowed to do at the moment,” McCain said.   

U.S. involvement in Afghanistan has been ongoing for the past 15 years. Before leaving office, President Obama ordered some 8,400 U.S. troops remain there through the end of 2016 to bolster and train Afghan forces to become self-sufficient.

Some 2,392 U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan since the war started in 2001, according to iCasualties, which tracks military deaths there and in Iraq. Since 2009, some 24,841 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan, including a record number of children in the last year, the U.N. reported. In 2016, some 923 children were killed in the war-ravaged country, a 25 percent increase from the previous year.

The deaths represent a grim military back-and-forth between the U.S.-led coalition and the Taliban, who controls 15 percent more territory than it did in 2015, Nicholson said. Taliban forces have influence over at least 25 of the 407 districts, but control only eight, according to The Long War Journal, a non-profit news effort.

Thursday’s request for increased funding from Congress signals increased U.S. involvement in the region, which represents the highest concentration of terrorists in the world, Nicholson said.    

In addition to needing to work with Pakistan to eliminate terrorist safe havens and the need to replenish Afghan troop numbers, as well as ramp up training initiatives, the U.S. needs to figure out how it will deal with Russian involvement in Afghanistan.       

Nicholson said Russia is aiding the Taliban there and it’s making coalition efforts more difficult.

McCain has also been outspoken in his objection to the Trump administration’s cozy relationship with Moscow. McCain and several other senators introduced a bill on Wednesday requiring the president notify Congress before lifting sanctions on Russia.     

“To provide relief at this time would send the wrong signal to Russia and our allies who face Russian oppression. Sanctions relief must be earned, not given,” said Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham, referring to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Hill reported.  

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