WASHINGTON — The ability to train and advise the still green Afghan security forces will be constrained if the U.S. troop level is cut to 5,500 as President Barack Obama has proposed, the senior American commander in Afghanistan said on Thursday.
Army Gen. John F. Campbell told the Senate Armed Services Committee that "very little" training will be done with fewer American forces.
Campbell, who is expected to retire soon, sparred with the committee's chairman, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, and other senators over the wisdom of the troop reductions.
McCain, one of Obama's harshest critics on national security issues, wanted to know whether the troop number is adequate to perform the training mission as well as counterterrorism operations as Obama has said it would be.
Campbell said much will depend on how quickly the Afghan forces improve. If they don't, he said, the number of American troops will most likely need to increase.
But Campbell, who is planning to retire from military service, said he is preparing to go down to 5,500 "as I am ordered." He said the decision to announce the troop withdrawals was a policy decision and not a military one.
Campbell acknowledged that publicly revealing the troop cuts could allow the enemy to "wait us out." At the same time, he said, openly debating and disagreeing with the decision "hurts us as well."
"Ultimately the president makes the decision, and that's the policy that we follow," Campbell said. "We follow orders. If it's not immoral, (if) it's not illegal, then you've got to do to the best of your ability to make sure that you can accomplish the mission."
McCain said it's unrealistic to expect a reduced force to handle the dual mission of training the Afghans and counterterrorism. "This smaller American force will inevitably be forced to shoulder a higher level of risk to themselves, to their mission and to the national security of the United States," McCain said.
Initially, Obama said he would trim the U.S. force in Afghanistan to 5,500 troops by the end of last year, and then down to 1,000 by the end of 2016. But Obama backtracked, saying the situation remained too fragile for such a rapid withdrawal.
The current U.S. force of about 9,800 would stay in place through most of 2016, Obama said in October 2015 during remarks from the Roosevelt Room in the White House. The reduction to 5,500 would occur "by the end of 2016," Obama said, although he didn't specify exactly when. The smaller force would still be expected to handle the twin duties of training the Afghans and counterterrorism.
"I want to keep 9,800 as long as I can before I drop down to 5,500," Campbell said.
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., the committee's ranking Democrat, agreed with McCain that any further withdrawals of U.S. troops should be based on the situation in Afghanistan, using the military phrase "conditions based."
Reed also said he wants to hear from the officer Obama selected to replace Campbell as the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army Lt. Gen. John Nicholson Jr. During a hearing last week, Nicholson said he would immediately conduct a rigorous assessment of troop requirements. Reed said Nicholson's review should be given "extraordinary weight."
The committee approved Nicholson's selection Thursday, and the full Senate backed the nomination on a voice vote later in the day.
Obama's critics said leaving the Afghans without enough American military trainers would imperil the gains made since 2002, when the U.S. committed to rebuilding the country. Nearly $64 billion has been allotted so far for training and equipping the Afghan army and police.
Yet patience among other lawmakers is fraying with the finish line so far away. The Afghans won't be able to independently sustain their security forces until 2024, according to Campbell.
Campbell also testified Tuesday before the House Armed Services Committee. During both appearances, he described the Afghan security forces as becoming increasingly competent. Yet significant hurdles remain, and persistent training and advising is required to overcome them, he said.
The challenges facing the Afghans are largely structural, such as building an adequate air force, gathering intelligence, maintaining warfighting equipment, budgeting and personnel management.
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