As the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump attempts to draft a new policy on Afghanistan, U.S. officials are hoping to reverse the gains made by militants in the country without getting too much further involved in the conflict-riddled country.
In recent weeks, three U.S. service members were killed in operations against the so-called Islamic State near Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan, where militant groups are still able to find sanctuary.
The U.S.-led international force officially ended combat operations in Afghanistan at the end of 2014, but the conflict has proved hard to pull out of without risking the overthrow of the Kabul government.
Present and former officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the Trump administration is conducting an inter-agency review, and while no decision has been made, the talks revolve around sending up to 5,000 additional troops.
One official said there is a goal to avoid artificial deadlines. Former President Barack Obama aimed to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan before leaving office. He had ordered in more troops in 2011 that peaked at about 100,000.
Almost 9,000 U.S. troops are still in Afghanistan; some 7,000 train and assist Afghan forces. About 1,500 are part of a counter-terrorism unit targeting pockets of Al-Qaeda, IS fighters, and the Taliban.
In February, Army General John Nicholson, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said he needs several thousand more international troops to break a stalemate with the Taliban.
Some U.S. officials question the benefit of sending in additional troops. More than 2,300 Americans have been killed and more than 17,000 wounded since the U.S. invasion following the attacks of 9/11.
These officials said the situation in Afghanistan is worse than they had expected, and that any politically palatable number of additional troops would not be enough to stem the conflict, much less create stability and security.
"Before you can get to the question of how many troops is enough you have to have clarity on what is the goal," said Christine Wormuth, former defense undersecretary in the Obama administration. "Is the goal to decisively defeat [the Taliban] and make Afghanistan into a viable state (or) is the goal to continue to prop up the government?"
Reporting by Idrees Ali for Reuters