At a Senate confirmation hearing on Gen. Joe Dunford’s nomination to be the next Marine Corps commandant, the four-star general revealed that he did not agree with President Barack Obama’s plan to announce a withdrawal of U.S. troops by 2017.
Members of the Armed Services committee on Thursday repeatedly questioned Dunford on withdrawing from Afghanistan, in light of an offensive by militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant that has overtaken large areas of Iraq. The Pentagon has supported the president’s drawdown plan, but Dunford put some distance between himself and the strategy, saying that neither he nor any senior military leader recommended removing all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., asked Dunford if he, or any other senior military leader, recommended “a policy of everybody out by 2017, no matter what?”
“No sir, not that I know of,” Dunford responded. “We still plan to have, as you know, some presence after 2017, but no one recommended zero.” He acknowledged that setting specific target dates for withdrawal comes with risks. “I think all of us in uniform, including the Afghans, prefer that would have been a bit more ambiguous.”
“In Iraq, we withdrew, with the associated consequences,” Dunford said. “And for me, that’s the most significant change. We knew when we left Iraq that there was work remaining to be done to develop sustainable Iraqi security forces, as well as to ensure that political stability existed in Iraq such that security would continue. In Afghanistan, we’ve got a chance to get that right, and my argument is for us to a responsible transition for Afghanistan, as opposed to withdrawal.”
Dunford is expected to take charge of the Marine Corps at a crucial time in which the force must balance readiness for today’s global crises with modernization for tomorrow’s fights — despite strict budget constraints. But the committee members focused their concern on the general’s role in the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, recently threatened by a dispute over the country’s presidential elections. While an audit of the vote is underway, and both candidates have pledged to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement to keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan after the end of this year, lawmakers warned that the unraveling in Iraq could be repeated.
The president’s plan for withdrawal from Afghanistan would preserve a significant U.S. presence over the next several years. If the BSA is signed, the U.S. will keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan after the war officially ends in December. Dunford said that number would be supported by approximately 4,000 NATO forces, with about 1,000 dedicated solely to counterterrorism, and roughly 2,000 total special operations forces. By the end of 2015, U.S. forces would be reduced by half, and by the end of 2016, shrunk further still to a “normalized embassy presence” and office for security assistance.
In responding to a question from Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., as to whether he backs the pace of the drawdown from December 2014 to 2016, Dunford reiterated his support — though he also made clear that flexibility is needed to adapt to realities on the ground.
“Yes,” he said, “with an understanding that we should continue to validate the assumptions and assess the conditions on the ground as the drawdown takes place.”
Dunford agreed with the assessment Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C. that if there is not an “acceptable” political transition in Afghanistan, as Graham said, “no amount of troops is gonna to make Afghanistan successful.” “As a matter of fact if that doesn’t happen, I’d be the first one to say get the hell out of there,” Graham said.
Graham responded, “On paper, there is a disaster in the making, to our homeland and to losing all of the gains we’ve fought for inside of Afghanistan by drawing down too quick.”
The key difference between Afghanistan and Iraq, Dunford said, is, “For one, the Afghan people want us to be in Afghanistan in overwhelming numbers. And I’ve recently spoken to both presidential candidates and I can assure that both presidential candidates also support a U.S. presence after 2014.”
“The key lesson,” he said, “is that after all of the sacrifice, and all of the accomplishments of the last 13 years, what we need to do is ensure that the transition results in the Afghan forces being sustainable without our presence there in the future.