By Idrees Ali
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Pentagon’s pick to be the next commander of U.S. Central Command said on Tuesday that the high rate of Afghan security forces losses were not sustainable even as the fight against Taliban militants was at a stalemate.
“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 the momentum at the same time as efforts have stepped up to find a peaceful settlement to end the 17-year-long war in Afghanistan.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani last month said that since 2015 more than 28,000 members of the Afghan security forces had been killed.
McKenzie said that the United States would have to work with Afghan forces to improve how they recruit, train and carry our missions.
He added that Afghan forces were not currently 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 to currently number 60,000.
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 not aware 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.
(Reporting by Idrees Ali, editing by G Crosse)