US commander in Afghanistan proposes slower withdrawal
By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 12, 2015
WASHINGTON — The commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan confirmed Thursday that he supports a slowing of the troop drawdown and slated pullback from bases in the country by the end of the year, as the White House reconsiders its plans.
Gen. John Campbell told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he has made those recommendations and they are now being considered by the joint staff and secretary of defense’s office.
The proposed changes from the front-line leadership of the U.S.-led NATO mission building Afghanistan’s military and police come just as the White House also reconsiders its withdrawal time line announced last year that would bring troop levels down to a 5,500 embassy security force by 2016. Republicans in Congress have slammed the Obama administration for what they call an artificial withdrawal plan that ignores realities on the ground.
“This is their first fighting season on their own,” Campbell said, speaking of the Afghan forces the United States hopes will be able to secure the country against Taliban, Islamic extremists linked to the Islamic State, and drug lords.
The general said this year is a crucial point in the 13-year effort to root out factions that could launch more 9/11-type attacks against the United States and again pull Afghanistan back into warring chaos. About 10,000 U.S. troops began a noncombat support mission in January.
A slower withdrawal time line could allow the forces to continue the train-advise — and-assist and the counterterror operations at more of the 21 bases it and coalition forces now use throughout the country.
Campbell did not provide details of his proposals and was scheduled to provide a closed-door classified briefing to Senators on Thursday.
He painted a picture of increasingly positive gains in Afghanistan over the past year. He said Afghan forces were able to maintain security through a disputed national election and are now the most respected organization in the country. Meanwhile, the new government of Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah have improved relations with Pakistan and become reliable partners with the United States.
Still, U.S. and coalition forces waged an airstrike last month in support of the Afghan army to push back thousands of Taliban fighters that flooded into Kunar, a district in eastern Afghanistan.
The incidents underscore concerns that the country’s security is still fragile and a misstep by U.S. forces such as an early withdrawal could result in a collapse similar to what happened last year in Iraq. The U.S.-trained Iraqi army quickly folded last summer, allowing the Islamic State to seize control of large areas of the country and trigger a new U.S. and coalition war there.
“We are worried about it being done ‘just as we’ve done in Iraq,’” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., mocking a statement by President Barack Obama last year that touted the proposed Afghanistan drawdown.
Obama’s statement came before the collapse of Iraq and the rise of the Islamic State. McCain said the planned drawdown “no longer accurately reflects the facts and conditions on the ground.”
The senator asked Campbell if he supports proposed changes to the U.S. withdrawal.
“Absolutely,” Campbell said.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said that prior Senate testimony from retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis called for about 20,000 troops in Afghanistan, which would double current forces.
Campbell said his recommendations do not include an increase of troops but instead propose slowing the planned decreases.