Top Afghanistan Commander Pushes for Flexibility in Troop Drawdown

A group of enlisted troops patrol near Observation Post Shrine in the Kajaki District, Afghanistan, on March 16, 2012.

U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Jacob Harrer

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A group of enlisted troops patrol near Observation Post Shrine in the Kajaki District, Afghanistan, on March 16, 2012.

Sen. John McCain implores the Gen. John Campbell to ask president to rethink plan.

The top commander in Afghanistan said he hopes to have more flexibility in the number of American troops available for the mission in Afghanistan in the latest sign the U.S. military drawdown there may not happen as fast as expected.

Gen. John Campbell, the commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul, told lawmakers Thursday that he has provided a set of options to the White House that would allow him to adjust his “force posture” through the year, strongly indicating that he would like to have the latitude to have more troops in Afghanistan as he may need them. His request comes amid significant political support from both parties to give him what he wants.

“I’m particularly concerned about the summer of 2015, the Afghans — this is the very first fighting season completely on their own,” Campbell told the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday. “They’ve had the lead for two years. They’ve done quite well, but this is the first one at the current force levels that we’re at.”

The current plan outlined by President Barack Obama last year is to draw down to fewer than 5,000 troops in Afghanistan by the end of this year, and leave all but a handful of troops in Afghanistan after 2017.

With the recent history of Iraq looming, U.S. military commanders who typically want the flexibility to determine force strength for any mission have flinched over the prescribed “glide path” of removing troops from Afghanistan after more than 13 years of war.

Campbell argued that the mission is at a critical inflection point and raised the specter of removing too many troops too fast. On Wednesday, former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham testified before the panel, saying the current timeline is “too short” and the rate of withdrawal “too steep.”

McCain said Obama’s drawdown plan was formed while Afghan President Hamid Karzai was still in office. Karzai and Washington sparred frequently over a variety of issues, including U.S. force presence. Kabul’s position today is different. The new president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, has asked Obama to leave more troops in Afghanistan and is expected to lobby Obama next month during an official visit to Washington. There are currently about 10,600 troops in Afghanistan, and a total of about 13,000 counting international troops. It’s not clear how many more troops Campbell would want, or if he would simply ask to slow down the drawdown of troops this year to where he could still have as many as 10,000 troops there by the end of the year – representing double what he would have under the current plan.

Afghanistan, Campbell said, is showing a number of positive trends that may bolster his arguments. Ghani’s arrival and fresh perspective on leading the Afghan National Forces has helped, Campbell said. Ghani has taken a personal interest in military leadership, firing, relieving or encouraging retirement of dozens of generals, many of whom got their jobs through political patronage. This week, Campbell said, some 48 generals retired, opening up positions for a new brand of Afghan military leader.

In the meantime, changes inside the region have given Campbell confidence in the overall mission in Afghanistan. He pointed to the changed dynamic inside the country under new political leadership as well as the more positive relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan that he said has grown stronger under Ghani as the two countries now see more clearly the common enemy both face.

“Nowhere is this more evident than in the Pakistan-Afghan relationship,” Campbell said.

Each member of the Senate committee seemed open to the idea that Campbell should have the flexibility he needs for troop numbers. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., probably the most vocal Democrat when it comes to giving military commanders the flexibility they need for troop numbers, agreed that Obama’s “calendar-based” approach in which troops are removed by a rigid timetable isn’t appropriate.

I think the American people are willing to stay the course and to help, not in an out-front way, but in a supportive way, more than people think.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

“We’ve got to have a conditions-based approach,” he said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, the Republican from South Carolina whose positions typically align with McCain’s, said Americans would accept Obama’s decision to leave more troops in Afghanistan if it meant not squandering gains that have been achieved there.

“I think the American people are willing to stay the course and to help, not in an out-front way, but in a supportive way, more than people think,” he said.

That may or may not be true. While some polls in recent months indicate that Americans are more supportive of the war in Afghanistan, the spate of violence at the hands of ISIS isn’t associated with Afghanistan. Campbell, however, indicated that there are signs that ISIS is attempting to make inroads there, and the Pentagon confirmed Tuesday that it had killed an ISIS operative in a drone strike in Afghanistan last week.

“Recent geopolitical events that have caught the American public’s attention — specifically the rise of the Islamic State and its very prominent acts of savagery — have occurred not near Afghanistan, but in Iraq,” said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia. “With all this in mind, I think the president holds the better hand on future actions in Afghanistan than the Republicans. Rightly or wrongly, the general public has moved on.”

One longtime analyst of Afghanistan believes the long-term solution for Afghanistan isn’t more troops. Instead, it’s the long-debated, on-again, off-again efforts at reaching a peace deal with the Taliban. Focusing on peace talks, rather than the size of the American military force, could offer an approach to achieving sustainable stability, he said.

“I think that by pursuing that course, you might be able to create some new opportunities where it would get us out of a situation where we’re constantly worried about how long we should stay in Afghanistan,” said Carter Malkasian, an analyst at CNA Corporation who has spent years working for the Defense and State Departments inside Afghanistan.

Malkasian said he wasn’t necessarily optimistic about such talks but that they offer the most pragmatic approach to ending conflict in a country that has seen war for decades. Indeed, the country may see war for years to come, but that reality won’t be altered by keeping more troops in the country for a few more years.

“The fundamental problem the Afghans are going to face after years of war is something that’s going to be there regardless of our troop numbers,” Malkasian said.

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