WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Pentagon’s pick for the next commander of U.S. Central Command said on Tuesday the high casualty rate of Afghan security forces would not be sustainable even with the stalemate in the fight against Taliban militants.
“Their losses have been very high. They are fighting hard, but their losses are not going to be sustainable unless we correct this problem,” Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie said during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
The assessment comes as both Western-backed security forces and the Taliban have pushed to gain momentum as the United States has stepped up efforts to find a peaceful settlement to end the 17-year-long war in Afghanistan.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said last month that since 2015 more than 28,000 members of the Afghan security forces had been killed.
McKenzie said the United States would have to work with Afghan forces to improve how they recruit, train and carry out missions.
He added that Afghan forces were not capable of securing the mountainous South Asian country without help from the nearly 14,000 U.S. troops deployed there.
“If we left precipitously right now, I do not believe they would be able to successfully defend their country,” McKenzie said.
He said he did not know how long it would take for Afghan forces to be self-sufficient and that Taliban fighters were estimated at 60,000.
U.S. President Donald Trump wants to end the conflict between Afghan security forces and the Taliban, who are fighting to drive out international forces and reestablish their version of strict Islamic law after their 2001 ouster.
McKenzie said he was unaware of any plans to significantly change the U.S. military footprint in Afghanistan.
Recent attacks underscore the pressure on Afghanistan’s overstretched security forces, suffering from their highest-ever level of casualties, estimates from the NATO-led “Resolute Support” mission show.
The Kabul government no longer releases exact casualty figures, but officials say at least 500 men are being killed each month and hundreds more wounded, a tally many consider low.
In November dozens of elite commandos were among the casualties suffered by Afghan security forces as the Taliban claimed to have taken a district in Ghazni province.
U.S. commanders have said they expect the Taliban to step up military efforts to better their position while they maintain contacts with U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad aimed at opening peace negotiations.
Trump recently asked for Pakistan’s help with faltering Afghan peace talks in a letter to new Prime Minister Imran Khan, making clear that Islamabad’s assistance was “fundamental” to the health of the two countries’ strained relationship.
McKenzie said Pakistan was needed for long-term stability in Afghanistan and could play a key role in facilitating talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
“At this time, however, Pakistan does not appear to be using the full extent of its influence to encourage the Taliban to come to the table,” McKenzie said in written responses to questions from lawmakers.
“We continue to see the Taliban being utilized as a hedge against India rather than as part of a stable, reconciled Afghanistan,” he added.
(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by G Crosse and Richard Chang)