U.S. commander in Afghanistan calls for robust force to remain after 2014

The commander of military forces in Afghanistan said Tuesday that the United States and its allies should keep troops in Kabul and the “four corners” of the country after 2014, warning about growing uncertainty across the region as the withdrawal begins.

“Many Afghans have told me they no longer fear the Taliban as much as they fear what will happen after 2014,” Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. told the Senate Armed Services Committee during his first congressional testimony since taking command in Kabul in February. “There is a growing sense that December 2014 is a cliff for the Afghan people.”

Dunford’s endorsement of an international force robust enough to provide support at the four regional training centers marked the Pentagon’s most expansive and ambitious vision of the role the United States should aspire to play in Afghanistan after the U.N. authorization for military operations expires. The White House has refrained from committing to a post-2014 troop level as it negotiates the terms of a bilateral security agreement with Kabul. Administration officials say they hope to have a deal by late spring or early summer.

The administration’s hedging on its future role is increasingly being compared to the failed attempts to keep a residual force in Iraq at the end of 2010. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) criticized Dunford for declining to say how many U.S. troops he felt should remain after 2014.

“I can’t tell you how deeply disappointed I am in your testimony, General, because they see what happened in Iraq,” McCain said at the hearing. “They see us withdrawing [from] every place in the world. They see what’s happening in Syria. They see a lack of commitment [from] the United States in Libya post-Gaddafi. They know which way the wind is blowing.”

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee who recently traveled to Afghanistan, said U.S. officials there are hoping the post-2014 military footprint will include between 10,000 and 13,000 U.S. troops. Ideally, he said, they would be complemented by as many as 7,000 troops from allied nations. Coming up with an agreement quickly for such a presence will be crucial to maintaining the flow of international aid on which Afghanistan depends, he said.

“If we don’t get a bilateral agreement and we don’t get the troops, Afghanistan is not going to get the money,” Hunter said in an interview.

Sen. James M. Inhofe (Okla.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the range of 8,000 to 12,000 NATO troops the administration has endorsed for post-2014 is woefully inadequate to support counterterrorism operations and substantive training.

“A force of 10,000 would barely be able to protect itself and would likely result in ceding the city of Herat in the west to Iranian authorities, which is a scary thought,” Inhofe said, citing what he said commanders have told him.

U.S. allies and Afghan officials, particularly military commanders, have begun to fret about Washington’s willingness to maintain a robust presence in Afghanistan, analysts say.

“I think the uncertainty that surrounds the nature of our presence is troublesome both to Afghans and our allies,” said Kim Kagan, a former military adviser who runs the Institute for the Study of War. “It makes it difficult for Afghans to plan what their requirements will be long-term and for our allies, who also rely on our enabling capabilities.”

Dunford said he had seen evidence that U.S. efforts to get the Taliban to reconcile with the Afghan government and join the political process are not bearing fruit.

“I don’t have any insight today that would lead me to believe the Taliban will be part of the political process in 2014,” the general said.

Ernesto Londoño covers the Pentagon for the Washington Post.
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