President Obama’s nominee to head U.S. Central Command professed broad agreement with the administration’s objectives and strategy in Afghanistan — and beyond — during his confirmation hearing Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“If am confirmed as Centcom commander, our troops, our regional partners and our adversaries alike should know that Centcom leadership has changed, but our strategy, our mission and our activities have not,” Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis said in his opening statement.
“We are remaining in the region,” he said. “We are not leaving.”
But Gen. Mattis, like his predecessor, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, said he agrees with Mr. Obama’s July 2011 date to begin redeploying forces out of Afghanistan, while echoing the administration’s ambiguity about the pace and scope of that withdrawal.
“It brings a sense of urgency, I think, because it starts a process that is conditions-based,” he said in response to a question from Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat.
“But the idea is for a bottom-up — not top-down — thinning out of our forces as we reach the conditions that permit a responsible turnover. So, again, it’s a date when a process begins. It’s not a handoff of a hot potato.”
Mr. Obama nominated the decorated veteran July 21 to fill the slot left vacant by Gen. Petraeus, who replaced Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal as commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan this month.
Gen. McChrystal, who has since retired from the military, was relieved of his command last month following a Rolling Stone article in which he and top aides were quoted disparaging U.S. officials.
The changes of command come amid renewed doubts about the nearly nine-year war in Afghanistan, stoked by the weekend leak of more than 90,000 secret field reports that paint a bleak picture of the situation in the country before the U.S. surge of 30,000 troops this year.
The House voted 308-114 to approve a $59 billion supplemental-funding bill for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Twelve Republicans and 102 Democrats voted against the measure, including House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. David R. Obey, Wisconsin Democrat.
Answering a question from Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, Gen. Mattis acknowledged that the cost of the war would be significant for years to come, but expressed hope for increased assistance — both military and financial — from coalition partners.
“When the Soviet Union went into Afghanistan, there was one country there,” he said. “Today, there’s 40-odd.”
He also offered a ringing endorsement of Pakistan’s military efforts against “common enemies” over the past 15 months.
“I think we have a stronger strategic relationship and more support today from the Pakistani military than we’ve enjoyed in 10 years,” he said, stressing what he called “a growing awareness and a remarkable political consensus in Islamabad that … poisonous snakes in the garden don’t only bite other people’s kids — they go after everyone.”
Gen. Mattis is known for his bluntness. Speaking about the Taliban in 2005, he said that “it’s fun to shoot some people.” Gen. Mattis also has reportedly called the 2003 Iraq invasion “the dumbest thing we ever did.”
Regarding the Iraq war, Gen. Mattis said he thinks the U.S. is on track to meet its self-imposed goal of ending its combat mission by the end of August, despite the lack of a government 4½ months after Iraqis went to the polls.
Gen. Mattis said the “greatest long-term challenge in the region” is Iran, which “continues to threaten regional and global stability by pursuing a nuclear weapons program and by funding, arming, and training militant proxies throughout the region.”