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Trump could send up to 5,000 more U.S. soldiers to Afghanistan

WASHINGTON -- The final proposals for a planned troop increase in Afghanistan are expected to cross President Donald Trump's desk this week.

US officials say the likely range for the US troop increase in Afghanistan is between 3,000 and 5,000 troops, but could be as low as 1,500. The increase would be to accelerate training missions for Afghan forces and well as to fight the Taliban.

Trump has already given authority to set official troop levels in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria to Secretary of Defense James Mattis.

National security adviser H.R. McMaster and Mattis favor the troop increase being discussed at the Pentagon and increasing the United States' financial investment in Afghanistan, according to a source familiar with the discussions. The same source said Trump's chief strategist, Steve Bannon, and his small contingent of nationalists are expected to push back when those recommendations hit Trump's desk.

Additional strategy options being presented to Trump include an outline for dealing with the Taliban, including scaling up strikes against the militant group, according to two US officials familiar with the proposal. The proposed strategy will, however, maintain the Obama administration's push toward reconciliation between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

It is unclear when Trump will make a formal decision.

'Another tough year'

Mattis traveled to Afghanistan late last month to give the Afghan government his recommendations for US involvement moving forward.

At the time he declined to share what those recommendations were.

But he did say "we are under no illusions about the challenges associated with this mission," adding that "2017 is going to be another tough year for the valiant Afghan security forces and the international troops who have stood and who will continue to stand should to shoulder with Afghanistan against terrorism."

US troops have been fighting for nearly 16 years in Afghanistan, where the government and its coalition allies are battling a resilient Taliban as well as other terror groups, including ISIS.

In February, Gen. John Nicholson, commander of Resolute Support and US forces in Afghanistan, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that leadership assesses "the current security situation in Afghanistan as a stalemate."

He cited the government's stability, Afghan military casualties, the influence of Pakistan, Russia and Iran, "the convergence" of various terror groups, the narcotics trade and corruption.

There are 8,400 US troops in Afghanistan and 6,000 troops from NATO and allied counties. Nicholson said the coalition faces "a shortfall of a few thousand troops" to break the "stalemate."

Theresa Whelan, the acting assistant secretary of defense for special operations, told lawmakers on the Senate Armed Services Committee last Thursday that the Pentagon's proposals are intended "to move beyond the stalemate and also to recognize that Afghanistan is a very important partner for the United States in a very tricky region."

"We want to maintain that partnership with Afghanistan and we want to ensure that Afghanistan reaches its potential, so that's the objective of the strategy," she added.

Insurgent gains

From January 1 through November 12 last year, 6,785 Afghan national security forces were killed, according to the latest quarterly report of the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction.

Casualties among international troops have dropped dramatically since the NATO-led effort shifted from a combat role to an advisory role in 2014.

The agency's analysis of information from US forces in Afghanistan "suggests that the security situation in Afghanistan has not improved this quarter."

"The numbers of the Afghan security forces are decreasing, while both casualties and the number of districts under insurgent control or influence are increasing," according to the January 30 report to Congress.