WASHINGTON — The House Armed Services Committee's chairman this week voiced support for increasing the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, adding he isn't worried about a slow slide into another major military mission there.
"I don't see a big build up of huge numbers of combat troops going back to Afghanistan," said Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas. "The Afghan military is making good progress. But these silly games we play with (personnel caps) make that progress harder to accomplish."
The comments came one week after Gen. John Nicholson Jr., commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan, said he needs several thousand more troops to break the "stalemate" in the fight against terrorist groups in Afghanistan.
About 8,500 U.S. troops and another 5,000 other foreign allies are still stationed in Afghanistan, even though the official combat mission there ended in 2014. Nicholson said several thousand more troops -- either from American or foreign allied forces -- are needed for training work key the long-term sustainability of the still struggling Afghanistan military.
Earlier in the week, in testimony before Thornberry’s committee, the former ambassador for U.S. counterterrorism efforts told lawmakers he is skeptical that sending more American troops into Afghanistan and Iraq can bring lasting peace to those regions.
"Afghanistan and Iraq are very, very important, but I caution about creeping troop increases in both countries," Michael Sheehan, chair of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, told members of the House Armed Services Committee.
"Thousands of advisors that are there in advice missions, when it becomes too big, it begins to look and smell like an occupation. And occupations create as many problems as they seek to solve."
Sheehan, who also served as assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict under President Barack Obama, also said he "never met a field commander that didn't want more troops" and said "more liberal use of combat aviation" to attack enemy fighters there may be more effective in helping Afghan security forces establish themselves.
But Thornberry said he sees troop caps put in place by former President Barack Obama as dangerous and counterproductive, and removing them as a more realistic long-term solution for security in Afghanistan.
"If we could just get rid of the political artificiality and say, ‘this is what we’re doing, we’re trying to, this is what we think it will take’ and be up front about it … we’ll be more efficient with our dollars and be more effective," he told reporters.
Nicholson’s comments about a troop increase drew praise from Republicans in the Senate, who had criticized Obama for a too-quick drawdown of forces from Afghanistan, but skepticism from several Democrats who worried about a plus-up turning into a never ending mission there.
Nearly 2,400 U.S. troops have been killed in fighting in Afghanistan since 2001.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.