BRUSSELS — Senior US defense officials pressed their case Thursday for fellow members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to contribute more troops to the Afghanistan war effort, but the response fell short of what top coalition commanders say they need.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that the new number is not yet finalized, but acknowledged that not all NATO military jobs in Afghanistan have been filled — a persistent problem last year when there were hundreds of vacancies.
‘‘We still have some gaps that we are continuing to work on, and we will address them with allies and partners so that we have a troop level, and not only the number of troops, but the type of troops we need to have a mission in Afghanistan next year,’’ Stoltenberg said at a meeting of NATO defense chiefs in Brussels.
President Trump announced Aug. 21 that instead of pulling US troops out of Afghanistan — as he claimed his instinct said — he was adding several thousand more while loosening the restrictions on battlefield operations. Trump said that he was not interested in nation-building, but wanted an ‘‘honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the enormous price that so many have paid’’ in the war.
As part of that, Trump sent about 3,500 more US troops to fill specific needs, including additional air power, precision rocket fire, and medical evacuation. Some of those troops are devoted to the NATO mission that trains Afghan forces, known as Resolute Support, while others are assigned to a separate US counterterrorism mission called Freedom’s Sentinel. The Pentagon has declined to provide a new breakdown on how many are assigned to each.
Army General John W. Nicholson Jr., the top US commander in Afghanistan, told reporters in Brussels that the entire ‘‘uplift’’ in US troops approved by Trump has arrived. That puts the total number of American troops in the country at about 14,500, with a few thousand devoted to the counterterrorism efforts.
But there remains an unresolved debate about why other NATO nations are not able to fill minimum requirements set forth by coalition commanders in Afghanistan and approved by the alliance. Nicholson has urged NATO for months to fully support what is known as the Combined Joint Statement of Requirement, a detailed breakdown of what is needed in the war effort, but the allies are still short of doing so.
US Army General Curtis M. Scaparrotti, the supreme allied commander of NATO, said that the military alliance will fill Nicholson’s troop requirement ‘‘substantially, in a very satisfactory way in my mind.’’ He also acknowledged there are shortfalls, but declined to say what percentage of the jobs will remain vacant.
The continued shortfall comes despite Trump taking a pointed approach to NATO this year, saying that its members must increase their defense spending. Several have done so.
The shortfall also comes despite months of pressing by Nicholson. In 2017, about 20 percent of the jobs required in the NATO training mission were vacant, ‘‘the lowest level of capability that we’ve ever had in the 16 years’’ since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he said. Nicholson said that he is now looking for a minimum of about 15,800 troops for the Resolute Support training mission, counting Americans.
‘‘This is the minimum manning requirement for the mission,’’ Nicholson said. ‘‘So, I’ve only been at 80 percent of that minimum number, and that’s why we’ve had a higher level of risk.’’
Nicholson said that many nations offering additional troops in Brussels this week still have to go through their own approval processes at home, making it difficult to determine how many additional troops will be going to Afghanistan. The process, he said, is ‘‘still playing out.’’
The additional NATO troops will primarily be devoted to advising Afghan police and commandos, overseeing schools to train them and building the Afghan air force. There is a potential that contractors could fill some of the shortfall, Nicholson said, but he added that he prefers not to do so.
Scaparrotti, asked if a shortfall in NATO troops would require additional Americans in Afghanistan, said that he ‘‘wouldn’t look at it that way.”’ The United States has contributed troops to both the NATO mission and the US counterterrorism mission based on Nicholson’s stated needs, and made other requests from the allies.
‘‘It’s a bit different in that respect in terms of what we ask them to do, and I think the nations have responded well,’’ Scaparrotti said.