President Obama’s nominee to head U.S. Central Command said on Wednesday he would recommend extending the U.S. mission in Afghanistan if local forces don’t improve their record against the Taliban and other militants.
Army Gen. Joseph L. Votel, who currently heads U.S. Special Operations Command, said during his confirmation hearing that the U.S. military may not be able to provide needed support to Afghan forces under a White House plan to halve the U.S. military footprint of 9,800 troops by the time Obama steps down next January.
“If [Afghan forces] demonstrate uneven performance similar to the 2015 fighting season, and continue to struggle with their sustainment systems, it will be difficult to address those challenges” under the current plan to downsize the U.S. mission, Votel said in remarks submitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Votel said he would recommend change to Obama’s departure plan if a review by the incoming commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John “Mick” Nicholson, concludes that Afghan forces aren’t making enough progress. He said those changes could include an extension to a hands-on advisory mission for the Afghan military and police, “which will require maintaining bases and personnel.”
The Obama administration has already made several changes to the withdrawal plan the president announced in 2014, reflecting the realities of the country’s ongoing insurgent conflict and the continued strength of the Taliban. In recent months, the U.S. military has also expanded operations against the Islamic State’s Afghanistan cell.
“I absolutely support the conditions-based approach as we look through our force levels in Afghanistan,” Votel told lawmakers.
In a wide-ranging hearing, Votel, a veteran Special Operations officer who previously headed the secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), said that conditions across CENTCOM’s vast area of responsibility from Egypt to Pakistan are more complicated than they have been in decades. Among other challenges, he named the civil war in Syria and smoldering sectarian tensions across the region.
Votel’s selection was seen as a signal of White House and Pentagon leaders’ affinity for small, low-profile operations done by Special Operations forces in the Middle East, rather than the large-scale deployments that took place under President George W. Bush.
The general’s task will be made more difficult by the United States’ insistence that local forces, rather than Americans, shoulder the bulk of the fighting against militant groups. In Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. advisers are trying to shore up shortcomings in local forces after years of training. In Syria, the Obama administration has an even harder task in trying to drum up local partners who will reliably battle the Islamic State.
“Our current military strategy of working by, with and through our partners requires both patience and perseverance,” Votel said. “As we have seen in Afghanistan, our efforts will include both successes and setbacks. However, in the balance, this approach builds capacity and establishes local ownership over the problem.”
Pressed about the White House’s strategy for countering the Islamic State, Votel said he did have concerns about the overall approach and whether it would be adequate to sustain future offensives to push militants from Raqqa and Mosul, their headquarters in Syria and Iraq.
“I intend, if confirmed to this position, to look very carefully at our strategy to ensure that it has the coherence that is required, that we have the resources we need to go after those important locations that you cited and that we have the authorities to do that,” Votel said.
In his prepared remarks, Votel said he did not expect a shaky partial cease-fire in Syria to hold “immediately or fully.”
The general spoke alongside Lt. Gen. Raymond “Tony” Thomas, who has been nominated to replace Votel at U.S. Special Operations Command. Addressing questions about the Islamic State’s growth in Libya, Thomas, who now serves as the JSOC commander, said U.S. Special Operations forces were already active there. Like Votel, Thomas comes from the Army’s elite Ranger force.
Last month, the U.S. military launched a significant airstrike against an Islamic State camp in western Libya. In recent months, U.S. Special Operations forces have been spotted in Libya on discreet visits designed to scout out groups with which the United States can work there. Thomas said options for additional Special Operations activities in Libya have been provided to senior leaders.
“We have had some effects there recently,” Thomas said. “We are making some inroads in terms of establishing the framework for what we need to do against the ISIL threat that has developed in Libya.” ISIL is another name for the Islamic State.
He said there may be opportunities for U.S. raids — which he characterized as “dash-and-run type operations” — but said the key to stability in Libya would be developing a reliable local force that can secure a future unity government.