The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said Wednesday that al-Qaeda’s network in that country is in “survival mode,” but warned that a full American military drawdown after the end of the year would allow the terrorist group to regenerate there.
Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford’s remarks to the Senate Armed Services Committee appeared intended to shape the White House’s deliberation over whether to leave behind a contingent for training and counterterrorism missions beyond 2014 or pull out entirely. The decision has been delayed by the Afghan president’s refusal to sign a security pact with Washington.
“A withdrawal, in my mind, means abandoning the people of Afghanistan, abandoning the endeavor that we’ve been here on for the last decade, and then providing al-Qaeda the space within which to begin again to plan and conduct operations against the West,” Dunford said.
The general said a U.S. pullout in 2015 would be a “huge moral factor for al-Qaeda,” and would allow it “to once again establish preeminence in the region and become the vanguard for the al-Qaeda movement from the region.”
Dunford said he was confident that Afghan security forces are up to the task of securing presidential elections scheduled to take place in early April and argued that the country’s Taliban insurgency does not represent “an existential threat to the government of Afghanistan or to the Afghan security forces.”
The commander said his team in Kabul can wait until the end of the summer to learn whether it must execute a full withdrawal or plan to keep a contingent beyond 2014, when President Obama has pledged to end the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan. After September, lingering uncertainty would present significant risk, the general said.
Speaking to a largely receptive panel, Dunford repeatedly made the case that a full pullout — an option some White House officials are pressing for — would set Afghanistan up for failure.
“If we leave at the end of 2014, the Afghan security forces will begin to deteriorate,” Dunford said. “The security environment will begin to deteriorate, and I think the only debate is the pace of that deterioration.”
Dunford testified that he supports leaving a residual force of 8,000 to 12,000 NATO troops — made up mostly of U.S. forces — and a separate contingent of a few thousand special forces to carry out counterterrorism operations.
The Obama administration is contemplating keeping a force in Afghanistan for a couple of years, but it intends to withdraw the bulk of it before the president leaves office in 2017, according to officials who have described the plans on the condition of anonymity.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called that time frame reckless and argued that keeping troops there for two more years would “be a needless risk of American lives.”
The only testy exchange of the session came when Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) told Dunford that he is unable to explain to his constituents why the United States continues to keep forces in Afghanistan.
“We’re a hawkish state,” said Manchin, arguing that a mission to defeat al-Qaeda has become an unnecessarily costly nation-building endeavor. “We like a good fight and sometimes we find if there’s not a good fight, we’ll fight each other just to stay in practice for the next fight.”
Dunford told the senator he might just get his wish.
“I would assess that if we don’t stay there, continue the job of growing the Afghan forces so they can replace us in providing security in Afghanistan, we’ll actually have a good fight,” the general said.