WASHINGTON — The United States should retain an American troop presence in Afghanistan through the next five years to ensure Afghan security forces can effectively fight the Taliban and other insurgents, the U.S. top commander there said Tuesday.
Army Gen. John Campbell, the commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan and NATO’s Resolute Support mission, told the House Armed Services Committee that Afghan leaders are “skeptical we will continue to be there” beyond the end of 2016.
In addition, Campbell said President Barack Obama’s plan to draw down to 5,500 troops by the end of 2016 from the 9,800 servicemembers in Afghanistan now, would leave the United States with “a very limited ability” to conduct its counter-terrorism operations and its mission to train, advise and assist Afghan security forces. The 5,500 troops would focus primarily on targeting al-Qaida and Islamic State terrorists, he said. Obama’s current plan leaves troop level decisions beyond the beginning of 2017 to the next president.
Campbell intends to retain 9,800 troops at least through the end of the summer fighting season and begin removing troops no later than October.
“The United States must continue to show flexibility with our mission in 2016 and beyond,” Campbell said during his testimony. “As the commander ... I’m assessing the ways that we ensure that 2016 is not a repeat of 2015 based on conditions and performance of Afghan security forces during this winter lull. I’m also reviewing how well those forces will likely perform in 2017 and the United States and coalition resources that are required for their continue development.”
Campbell, who has led the mission in Afghanistan since August 2014, will retire in the coming months. Army Lt. Gen. John W. “Mick” Nicholson Jr. has been nominated to succeed him, pending Senate confirmation. Nicholson, testifying last week before the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the security situation in Afghanistan had “deteriorated” during the last year, and he vowed to provide his own recommendations on the needed number of American troops in Afghanistan within 90 days of taking command, which is expected to occur in March.
Campbell said setbacks faced last year by the Afghan security forces in northern and southern Afghanistan were “disappointing.” But he said the Afghans quickly rebounded in their first year leading combat operations in their own country. Insurgents control or influence only 26 of 407 district centers in Afghanistan and the government controls 70 percent of the country’s inhabited areas, Campbell said.
“The enemy and naysayers predicted the collapse of the Afghan government and security forces … instead the Afghan security forces fought for their country,” Campbell said. “They did not fall … They inflicted higher casualties on their enemy while enduring a higher operational tempo with significantly reduced coalition support.”
The vast majority of the failures of the Afghan National Security Forces in recent months – such as the short-lived loss of control of the city of Kunduz in October and the more recent struggles against the Taliban in Helmand Province – were the result of poor leadership, Campbell said. The Afghan army has fired 92 general officers, which includes a commander in Helmand. The changes show the Afghanistan government’s commitment to its security, the general said.
“Now more than ever, the United States should not waiver on Afghanistan,” Campbell said. “…This kind of change takes time.”
The Afghans require American help in many areas including gathering intelligence, building its aviation programs and developing the systems to construct and maintain an enduring military, he said.
But some lawmakers on Tuesday questioned America’s seemingly unending commitment to the nearly 15-year-old war in Afghanistan.
“The United States was supposed to leave Afghanistan in 2017; now it could take decades, 20, 30, 40 years,” said Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C. “We’ve been making progress for 14 years, and now we’re talking about more years to train the Afghan security forces. The American people are sick and tired … it has just got to come to an end.”
Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said he was concerned Campbell had “to walk a tightrope” without enough resources to continue the mission in Afghanistan.
“This is a crucial time in Afghanistan,” Thornberry, the committee’s chairman, said and cited the growth of the Islamic State group and the resurgence of the Taliban and al-Qaida. “... Yet our commitment to Afghanistan seems to come a year at a time, which causes some question about how reliable a partner we are.”