Afghanistan war at a stalemate, top general tells lawmakers

Fighting in Afghanistan is at a stalemate and the country would likely fall to the Taliban if the U.S. were to pull troops from the conflict now, the officer nominated to head U.S. forces in the Middle East told the Senate on Tuesday.

“I believe that the operational military situation is largely stalemated,” Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

McKenzie, speaking at his confirmation hearing to become the next head of U.S. Central Command, warned against withdrawing U.S. troops from the 17-year war as Afghan security forces are not yet able to defending their nation.

“If we left precipitously right now, I do not believe they would be able to successfully defend their country,” McKenzie said.

“Their losses have been very high. They’re fighting hard, but their losses are not going to be sustainable unless we correct this problem.”

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The U.S. military has been in Afghanistan since 2001, when it removed the Taliban from power.

During that time, more than 2,400 U.S. forces have died in the conflict, including 12 this year.

Afghanistan has been in conflict since the late 1970s when U.S.-backed Afghan guerrillas repelled the Soviet Union from the country in a nine-year war.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis on Monday called for the international community to help end the war in Afghanistan as nearly 40 years of conflict “is enough.”

The Trump administration has moved to push the Taliban to peace talks in an attempt to bring about an end to the violence, with U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad leading the charge.

Appointed in September, Khalilzad has moved quickly to reach out to as many top Taliban figures as possible in an attempt to start peace discussions before President TrumpDonald John TrumpProsecutors investigating Trump inaugural fund, pro-Trump super PAC for possible illegal foreign donations: NY Times George Conway: Why take Trump's word over prosecutors' if he 'lies about virtually everything' Federal judge says lawsuit over Trump travel ban waivers will proceed MORE orders a troop pullout without an end to the conflict.

Khalilzad met Tuesday with Pakistani officials and will also travel to Afghanistan, Russia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to try to wrangle support.

But talks have floundered, with the Taliban currently holding control of nearly half of the country, while routinely carrying out attacks on government officials and local security forces.

Lawmakers made clear their frustration with the pace of the diplomatic and military efforts to bring an end to the fighting, questioning McKenzie on everything from the lack of progress in the conflict, to growing Taliban control in Afghanistan. 

 “We’ve been at it for 17 years; 17 years is a long time,” said Sen. Gary PetersGary Charles PetersBipartisan supply chain bill likely punted to next Congress, McCaskill says Overnight Defense: GOP senators rip Saudi prince after CIA briefing | Top general says Afghan war at a stalemate | Mattis extends border mission through January | Pompeo gives Russia deadline on nuclear arms treaty Afghanistan war at a stalemate, top general tells lawmakers MORE (D-Mich.). “What are we doing differently when it comes to the Afghan security forces that we haven’t done for 17 years?”

McKenzie did note that Khalilzad’s efforts is “a new element in the equation that we have not had before – working to actually try to come to some form of reconciliation and a political end state to the conflict that we’ve been unable to approach before.”

In response to a question from Sen. Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerAlmost half of US residents don't use broadband internet: study Afghanistan war at a stalemate, top general tells lawmakers Grassley open to legislation making it tougher for Trump to impose tariffs on national security grounds MORE (R-Miss.) on new reports that the Afghan government now only controls 56 percent of the country, McKenzie explained that the Afghan government has chosen to secure and defend more populated areas of the country.

Such a move “has been a trade off in giving up more sparsely populated areas.”

“It’s concerning, but it’s not a critical factor,” McKenzie said.

McKenzie also said that the Taliban are “in a stalemate” and it’s “critical to maintain unrelenting pressure” on the group to bring them to peace talks.

“We believe that it is important to convince the Taliban that, even as we are in a stalemate, so they are in a stalemate, and they will be unable to find a path to victory on the battlefield,” he said.

Senior Army leaders have used the term “stalemate” frequently in the last year to describe the fighting situation in Afghanistan, with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford using the description last month.

The Taliban is “not losing right now, I think that is fair to say,” Dunford said during the Halifax International Security Forum on Nov. 17.

“We used the term stalemate a year ago, and, relatively speaking, it has not changed much.”

Dunford added that the United States is “a long way,” from reaching reconciliation with the Taliban.