Gen. John Nicholson, the Resolute Support and United States Forces-Afghanistan commander, briefs reporters on Dec. 2, 2016, at the Pentagon.

Gen. John Nicholson, the Resolute Support and United States Forces-Afghanistan commander, briefs reporters on Dec. 2, 2016, at the Pentagon. (Jette Carr/DOD)

WASHINGTON – The United States has enough troops and authority to use its firepower in Afghanistan to assist government forces defeat the Taliban and other terrorists groups, the top American military commander in the country said Friday.

“My assessment of our current capabilities is that we have adequate resources to conduct this mission at a moderate level of risk going forward,” Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr. told reporters while he was visiting the Pentagon. “This is acceptable for what we need to conduct our mission.”

The United States is conducting two major operations inside Afghanistan. The NATO-led Resolute Support mission to train Afghan forces and its mostly unilateral counterterrorism mission to target terrorist organizations including al-Qaida and the Islamic State group.

Nicholson did not say Friday what advice he would provide to President-elect Donald Trump about the war in Afghanistan.

The 15-year-old war never appeared to be a priority throughout the presidential campaign, and Trump has voiced few opinions publicly about what the United States’ role would be there during his administration.

Some Republican lawmakers have expressed concerns that progress in Afghanistan – as well as in the fight against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria – has been hindered by troop caps and rules of engagement imposed by President Barack Obama’s administration.

There are about 9,800 American troops in Afghanistan, but that number will drop to 8,400 by Jan. 20. Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo, the chairwoman of Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, said Thursday that she hoped the Trump administration would review troop levels. She said the caps made the military rely too heavily on the use of expensive, private civilian contractors for a variety of jobs including aircraft maintenance.

Nicholson said progress displayed by the Afghan security forces throughout 2016 shows the United States has a good policy in place in Afghanistan. He praised Obama’s decision earlier this year to grant him new engagement guidelines to launch strikes against the Islamic State group and provide additional combat-enabling support to Afghan forces fighting the Taliban.

“I think the package of authorities that we have is adequate for us to do our job,” he said. “We’d like to be able to continue to use those authorities.”

The authorities gave the Afghans confidence as they worked to retain control of major population centers and conduct offensives against the Taliban for the first time since taking the lead in security operations in 2014, Nicholson said.

Despite more than 5,000 combat casualties, the Afghan security forces were able to fend off eight Taliban attacks on major population centers, including Kunduz City in the north, Lashkah Gar in Helmand to the south and Tirin Kot in Uruzgan.

Nonetheless, Nicholson described the war as being “at an equilibrium, but in the favor of the government” forces. He conceded the Taliban has gained some territory in the last year, primarily in rural areas in the country’s southern region.

The Afghan government controls territory that includes about 64 percent of the nation’s population, the general said. The Taliban controls land with less than 10 percent of Afghanistan’s population, Nicholson told reporters at the Pentagon. The remainder of the territory is contested. Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

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Corey Dickstein covers the military in the U.S. southeast. He joined the Stars and Stripes staff in 2015 and covered the Pentagon for more than five years. He previously covered the military for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. Dickstein holds a journalism degree from Georgia College & State University and has been recognized with several national and regional awards for his reporting and photography. He is based in Atlanta.

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