WASHINGTON — Senators on Thursday pressed nominees to top military posts on how to avoid a repeat of the recent Iraq debacle — where a U.S.-trained military collapsed in the face of a smaller insurgent force — in Afghanistan as the war there draws to a close.
Army Gen. John Campbell, who likely will become the final commander of U.S. and NATO combat troops in Afghanistan, and Army Lt. Gen. Joseph L. Votel, tapped to run U.S. Special Operations Command, both said Afghan forces were gaining capability. That could be seen in their effective security operations during Afghan presidential voting earlier this year, Campbell said.
But both promised senators they’d speak up if President Barack Obama administration’s timelines for removal of U.S. troops from the country prove unworkable.
Obama announced earlier this year plans to maintain a force of fewer than 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after the official end of combat operations in December. By the end of 2016, the only remaining troops would be those manning the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
Angus King, an independent senator from Maine, questioned how the Obama administration can be sure that Afghan forces will be ready.
“It strikes me that rather than an arbitrary date for leaving Afghanistan, it should be based on conditions on the field,” King said.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said both of Afghanistan’s leading presidential candidates have told him they’re worried about basing troop levels on dates rather than conditions.
McCain said Afghan forces are unlikely to gain necessary capabilities in the areas of logistics, intelligence and aviation by 2017. Inadequate support, he suggested, could lead to an Iraqi-style collapse, where the Sunni insurgents last month sent the Iraqi army scurrying across broad sections of Iraq.
“One would hope the president of the United States would look at the nightmare in Iraq today and the ability that we could have had to provide some stability there, and perhaps re-evaluate his decision [in Afghanistan] — not for American combat troops but for the much needed capabilities of support and counterterrorism that we can provide, which they simply do not have,” he said.
Campbell said counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan were critical.
“I believe the CT piece, if you want to just boil it down to simplistic terms, is it protects the homeland,” he said.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., questioned how the Obama administration could announce plans for a normal embassy military presence of perhaps 1,000 troops if counterterrorism is crucial.
“How do we do that based on a Kabul operation only, and how do we do that with 1,000 people, and which part of that 1,000 people will fulfil the important mission to protect the homeland?” she said.
Campbell and Votel responded that military leaders would have to assess the situation as it develops in coming years, and potentially make recommendations on modified force levels later.
“I don’t think I can answer that question accurately right now,” Votel said. “I think it really depends on the situation as it evolves.”
But Campbell praised the overall progress of Afghan forces, and said the contenders to be the next Afghan president are eager to work with the United States.
“Everything I see, sir, is good news,” he said of the developing political situation in Afghanistan, in answer to a question from Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga. “I’m looking forward to getting over there, and I think we’re on a positive path right now.”
Senators also questioned Adm. William E. Gortney, nominated to command U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, on topics including missile defense and cyberwar.
“I think the greatest threat that we have is the cyberthreat, to our critical infrastructure, to our power grid, to our banking system,” Gortney said. “And the job at NORTHCOM is to handle the physical consequences of that particular threat.”