The top commander in Afghanistan said on Tuesday he has recommended to President Obama that U.S. troops remain in country past the current December 2016 exit date.
The recommendation to basically scuttle Mr. Obama’s timeline contains a number of options to keep a force larger than a planned embassy presence of civilians and a small contingent of military personnel. It would likely mean the U.S. would continue on-call airstrikes and in-battle advising.
“The president is well aware of the tenuous security situation,” Army Gen. John F. Campbell told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“I do believe we have to provide our senior leaders with options different than the current plan that we’re going with,” he testified.
Committee Chairman John McCain urged Mr. Obama to end his “politically motivated withdrawal” from Afghanistan. He said the U.S. risks another nightmare similar to Iraq, where the Islamic State terror army now holds significant territory since the 2011 American exit.
Mr. Obama’s plan is to reduce the U.S. footprint down to embassy personnel in Kabul, as was done in Iraq. This means no U.S. airstrikes from within the country to back ground forces and no precision counterterrorism missions.
Gen. Campbell said his troop options for the White House are “above and beyond normal embassy presence based on changes that have happened.”
Gen. Campbell’s assessment of the Afghanistan battlefield did not seem as optimistic as it was one year ago when he took command. His testimony was filled with references to problems still besetting the Afghanistan National Security Force (ANSF) in this, the war’s 14th year. The U.S. has spent about $62 billion on equipping and training the ANSF. This figure does not include the yearly cost of American military operations.
The four-star general said “much has changed” on the battlefield since Mr. Obama announced the withdrawal timetable in 2014, including the rise of the Islamic State and al Qaeda and a reinvigorated Taliban.
A year ago, he characterized the Islamic State presence as “nascent.” Today he calls it “operationally emergent.”
The Islamic State is trying to cement operations and recruit terrorists in Nangarhar province, east of Kabul, on the Pakistan border, and name Jalalabad as its Afghan capital.
He said the ANSF is plagued by a substandard officer corps that “shows they cannot handle the fight alone at this stage of development.”
One glaring example is the province of Kunduz, north of Kabul, where the Taliban briefly recaptured the capital and, in the process, saw the U.S. commit one of its worst blunders in the war: striking a Doctors Without Borders hospital, killing 22 staff and patients.
Gen. Campbell said the Taliban invasion “quite frankly surprised the police forces,” who proceeded to run away.
He said the Taliban has largely left the city, pushed out by Afghan regular government forces and U.S. air power. But he conceded the Taliban gained a valuable public relations victory.
He said the Taliban changed tactics during the current “fighting season” by invading areas outside their strongholds, such as Helmand province. Their offensive left the ANSF at a decided disadvantage.
For the first time the Afghans did not have automatic U.S. airstrikes to back them up. He said Afghanistan’s ability to conduct close air support with only a few helicopters is woefully inadequate.
“It’s an area where we started too late,” he testified. “It’s going to take several more years to get there.”
Nor do the Afghans have the pure troop numbers to cover every fight the Taliban picks.
“They have stretched the Afghan security forces,” Gen. Campbell said.
Mr. McCain, a sharp critic of Mr. Obama’s overall approach to fighting Islamic extremists, urged the president to make a troop decision based on conditions on the ground, not on a calendar.
“Wars do not end just because politicians say so,” said Mr. McCain in a clear shot at Mr. Obama, who has pledged to remove all combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016.
Mr. Obama announced an end to the Iraq War and asserted the U.S. was leaving behind a “sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq” — a situation that, if it ever existed, quickly crumbled.
In Afghanistan, allied troop strength has shrunk from 140,000 to a little under 14,000, 10,000 of them American.
Amid criticism of the ANSF, Gen. Campbell tried to be upbeat.
Today, he said, “I still believe the Taliban cannot overtake the government.”
He said the retreat in Kunduz “is not the majority of Afghan forces.”
He said the Taliban is fractured over who should lead them since the announced death of Mullah Omar. And they are fighting the Islamic State to maintain their place as the dominant enemy.
Gen. Campbell has been reluctant to discuss the hospital strike in detail. He said on Monday that Afghan forces called in the urban air raid after taking fire from Taliban.
In a new detail, he said the AC-130 gunship, armed with cannon and machine guns, then checked with the U.S. command and received permission to open fire.
This thin chronology leaves many answered questions, such as was the air crew briefed on the hospital’s existence, and to what degree did the command study the target before giving the OK?
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter issued a statement on Tuesday acknowledging his forces made a mistake.
“The U.S. military takes the greatest care in our operations to prevent the loss of innocent life, and when we make mistakes, we own up to them,” he said. “That’s exactly what we’re doing right now. Through a full and transparent investigation, we will do everything we can to understand this tragic incident, learn from it and hold people accountable as necessary.”
Gen. Campbell said there are three investigations by NATO, the Defense Department and his command. He declined to endorse a probe by some independent body, saying that decision would have to be made by his bosses.
He noted that while the U.S. makes mistakes in some attacks, the Taliban deliberately targets civilians and are responsible for 70 percent of all war deaths in Afghanistan.
John F. Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, has begun to issue a series of audits on ANFS operations.
In July he reported that U.S. contractors, because of poor security, could not provide training or maintenance for the army’s Mobile Strike Force Vehicle. He also said the Afghan army could not account for 465,000 U.S.-provided small arms.