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Still in a stalemate,’ top U.S. commander in Afghanistan says

KANDAHAR AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — America's top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, told NBC News Thursday that the war here remains in a "stalemate," but that President Donald Trump's new strategy has reversed a decline in the U.S. position.

"We are still in a stalemate," Nicholson, a four-star Army general said in an exclusive interview. "We are only 90 days into this new policy, but with the U.S. forces that will be arriving, with the new authority that we have been given, put the pressure on external enablers, with the fact that we are condition based and not time based, we've set all the conditions to win."

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Nicholson also called out Russia and Pakistan, specifically, for enabling the Taliban and explained his decision to detonate a GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb — known colloquially as the "Mother of All Bombs" in April. He also said he has the confidence of the president.

Nicholson's assessment of the overall status of the Afghanistan war largely tracked with a more upbeat-sounding version Trump gave in a video conference Thursday morning with members of the Army's 82nd Airborne First Brigade Combat Team here.

"I have to say just directly to the folks in Afghanistan: Everybody’s talking about the progress you’ve made in the last few months since I opened it up," Trump said. "We opened it up, we said go ahead, we’re going to fight to win. We’re not fighting anymore to just walk around; we’re fighting to win, and you people are really — you’ve turned it around over the last three to four months like nobody’s seen."

Trump outlined his strategy in an August speech, which was followed up by the deployment of 3,000 additional troops — including those from the 82nd Airborne — in an effort to suppress terrorism and perhaps bring about a political settlement with the Taliban and other groups involved in the fighting.

Nicholson, who also told lawmakers in February that the war was at a stalemate, said Thursday that the new strategy has provided momentum for the U.S. and its allies.

"This change in policy has reversed this decline that we've been in since 2011," Nicholson said. "And what I would say is that we've drawn down too far and too fast, we communicated to the enemy that we had lost our will to win, and now with a new policy as of August, we are going to win. And winning means delivering a negotiated settlement that reduces the level of violence and protecting the homeland."

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As Trump considered his options in Afghanistan this summer, he became frustrated with the lack of progress and even suggested that he might fire Nicholson for failing to win the war. Instead, he reversed his previous calls to pull out of Afghanistan and followed the advice of his military advisers.

Now, Nicholson said Thursday, he believes the president has confidence in him.

That's "because of the authorities I've been given and the policy we've received" in August, he said. "It's everything I asked for."

Nicholson's had less luck with Pakistan, a powerful player in the region that has provided support to the Taliban. He said that has to be resolved at the diplomatic level.

"That's up to the senior leaders of our government," he said. "It's a political conversation between our two capitals, and here on the ground we are hoping to see a reduction with that support. The bottom line is the Taliban cannot win."

Similarly, the U.S. hasn't been able to prevent Russia from providing aid to the Taliban, even though Nicholson said the two countries have common interests in fighting ISIS and cracking down on the flow of heroin out of Afghanistan.

"The Russians themselves have legitimized the Taliban," he said. "We see indications that the Taliban themselves and the open media talk about Russians giving them fuel, and raise money for their operations, so there are many, many indicators of this."

Asked whether that fuel includes small arms or even more powerful munitions, Nicholson said, "We've heard reports of those, yeah."

On the other end of the weapons spectrum, it was Nicholson who ordered the first use of America's largest conventional bomb, the MOAB, in Afghanistan in April.

The 11-ton bomb was deployed because "other ammunitions were ineffective" in trying to damage a network of ISIS-held tunnels and caves, Nicholson said.

Hans Nichols reported from Afghanistan. Jon Allen reported from Washington, D.C.