The commander of the war in Afghanistan said he will “reserve the right” to recommend changes to the American military’s drawdown plans should the circumstances on the ground dictate the need for a change.
Speaking days after a security agreement was signed between the U.S. and the new Afghanistan government, Army Gen. John Campbell, the commander of the International Security and Assistance Force in Kabul, said Thursday that it was “really, really early” to say whether the current plan to draw down American troops, in which almost all will leave by the end of 2017, is appropriate. And he left the door open to recommending that those drawdown plans be slowed or reassessed, if need be.
“I feel very confident that we have a good plan, but as any commander on the ground, you know, I reserve the right to be able to take a look at the risk to the force, risk to the mission, and then provide my assessments to my chain of command as we move forward,” Campbell told reporters in the Pentagon via video teleconference.
Campbell said he would measure those risks in making his assessment as the mission in Afghanistan evolves over the next year or so.
Military commanders always maintain the right to change their recommendations about factors such as the size of a force depending on a mission, and in that regard Campbell’s remarks are not surprising. But in light of the situation in Iraq, which some believe could have been prevented by keeping a larger American troop presence there, the notion that the commander in Afghanistan may be open to recommending a different drawdown plan is noteworthy. But Campbell, who took over as ISAF commander six weeks ago, reiterated that he’s “comfortable we’re on the right path.”
Under the drawdown plan announced by President Barack Obama earlier this year, that number will drop to 9,800 by December. By the end of next year, that number will be cut by about half; by 2017, all U.S. troops will be out of Afghanistan except a handful of troops assigned to the U.S. embassy, which could be as many as a few hundred at the most. NATO troops are also drawing down, but will continue to stay in Afghanistan through this year, bringing the total international force to about 12,500 by Dec. 31. There are currently slightly less than 40,000 U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan now.
In the wake of the violence that has spread across northern Iraq, experts, legislators, former military officers and policymakers have raised the question of whether maintaining a bigger U.S. troop presence in Iraq could have blunted the rise of the group known as the Islamic State after all but a handful of troops were removed from Iraq in 2011. As the drawdown in Afghanistan begins to take shape, many wonder if that plan still makes sense. Those concerns have been upstaged by the conflict in Iraq and Syria. And Afghanistan had been experiencing a political crisis that left the critical Bilateral Security Agreement between the U.S. and Afghanistan in limbo for months.
With Afghanistan’s political crisis now over, and President Ashraf Ghani seated, the two countries this week signed the agreement which allows U.S. and, separately, NATO forces to remain in Afghanistan after the official end of the war on Dec. 31.
Campbell emphasized that Afghanistan and Iraq are “fundamentally different,” in part because there was no security agreement with Iraq, leading to U.S. forces leaving in 2011.
“You can’t compare those two,” he said.
Afghan forces are “in the lead” across the country with U.S. forces only conducting a train, advise and assistance mission at higher levels inside the Afghan military. Campbell said the Afghan security forces have taken as many as 9,000 casualties, including wounded and killed, in 2014.
Despite an “uptick” in attacks by the Taliban in some in some areas, particularly rural ones, Campbell said Afghan forces are competent and capable and can control the violence. Recent media reports from inside Afghanistan indicated high-level attacks by the Taliban in Ghazni province, southwest of the capital, included beheadings and burning houses and as many as 150 people killed. Not true, Campbell said.
“That’s absolutely false,” he said.
Campbell, a former vice chief of staff of the Army who has experience in Afghanistan as the commander of forces in the eastern region of Afghanistan until May 2011, stressed that the mission in Afghanistan was in transition and that “Operation Resolute Support” is focused on helping the Afghan forces on a number of areas. Afghan forces, for example, still struggle with collecting and analyzing intelligence, logistics and aviation issues.
“Those things that are very, very hard for any army, especially hard here in Afghanistan,” he said. “We’ll continue to work with them on that.”