WASHINGTON — A full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan this year could precipitate an Iraq-style security breakdown, allowing al-Qaida to regroup there and again threaten the United States, the top U.S. general in Afghanistan told senators on Wednesday.
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. reiterated U.S. military support for a NATO force of 8,000 to 12,000 troops — primarily provided by the United States — to train and advise Afghan forces after combat forces leave by the end of this year.
A few thousand more troops would be needed as well to conduct a counterterrorism mission against al-Qaida, which he said is currently in “survival mode.”
But the so-called “zero option” of no U.S. troop presence after 2014 has been squarely on the table since November, when Afghan president Hamid Karzai refused to sign a bilateral security agreement negotiated by his administration and approved by a national council of tribal and local leaders he convened.
Without a signed BSA, which grants U.S. troops immunity from the Afghan legal process and establishes a framework for cooperation, the Obama administration and members of Congress alike have said no troops can remain.
Dunford characterized that potential outcome as a disaster for Afghanistan and threat to the United States.
“If we leave at the end of 2014, the Afghan security forces will begin to deteriorate, the security environment will begin to deteriorate, and I think the only thing to debate is the pace of that deterioration,” he said.
A full U.S. withdrawal would be a huge morale boost for al-Qaida, he said, and would allow the terror group to reconstitute itself in the region. He was asked by Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., whether the United States or the West could then expect another devastating attack like 9/11.
“I absolutely believe there’ll be another attack,” Dunford said.
Each presidential candidate vying to replace Karzai in elections this April has committed to signing the BSA, Dunford said. Even if the outcome requires a runoff — creating uncertainty the military believes could stretch to August — there would still be time to plan for either continued presence or withdrawal, he said.
“If we have a new president by August, I’m comfortable that we will be able to maintain the options through that time without any difficulty,” he said.
If the BSA isn’t signed by then, however, “the risk to orderly withdrawal begins to be high in September.”
Dunford praised the development of the Afghan military and police forces.
When it comes to tactical operations, he said, the military has made great strides. Alluding to criticism that security in the country did not change or improve from 2012 to 2013, he said it failed to take into account the vast decrease in numbers of Western troops in the country.
“That’s true, and when put in perspective, it’s also extraordinary, because security remained roughly the same with Afghans assuming the lead and with over 50 percent of the coalition redeploying during that period of time,” he said.
Dunford predicted the ANSF could reliably provide security for the upcoming presidential election, and said the forces are not militarily threatened by the Taliban.
Still, they are not ready to stand on their own, and need help with aviation, intelligence, with support systems and logistics, and at the ministerial level, he said.
Withdrawal would also put gains made by women in Afghanistan at great risk, he said in response to questions from Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., asked Dunford why the United States should continue to risk troops’ lives and spend money trying to remake Afghan society when the original intent of the war was simply to dislodge al-Qaida.
West Virginians don’t shy away from a good fight, Manchin said, but added “This one makes no sense to any West Virginian at all, anywhere I go in my state.”
United States security still demands a presence in Afghanistan, Dunford responded, saying, “If we don’t stay there … we’ll actually have a good fight.”