Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. testifies Nov. 15 before the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington during a nomination hearing to be the next commander of the International Security Assistance Force and to be commander, U.S. Forces, Afghanistan. (Thomas Brown / Staff)
The general tapped to become the top American and NATO military official in Afghanistan would not say coalition troops are winning the 11-year-old conflict while testifying at a Senate confirmation hearing Nov. 15, but he also said that U.S. forces will likely stay past the 2014 withdrawal date.
In response to a series of questions from Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., about what missions U.S. forces might conduct after December 2014 — which the Obama administration has set as the end date for the U.S. combat mission there — Marine Corps. Gen. Joseph Dunford said that “counterterrorism operations and advise and assist” duties would be the most crucial.
While he didn’t offer specifics, keeping those missions active would allow Special Operations forces to continue hunting terrorists, while U.S. soldiers would continue to train the Afghan Army and police. Those missions will continue to be “an enduring role [that] will exist after 2014,” Dunford said. Any other missions after 2014 “will be informed by the gaps that remain” in Afghan capability, he said.
Dunford also stressed that the U.S. and Afghan governments will need to sign a bilateral security agreement no later than May 2013 to grant American forces legal protections against arrest and prosecution, because “we’ll be there beyond 2014 to secure our objectives.”
Any such agreement would help to define a “clear and compelling narrative of commitment” by the U.S. to Afghanistan post-2014.
While pushing back the end date for the conflict — which has entered its second decade — the general also testified that “we are making progress, and our objectives are achievable” in Afghanistan. Notably, Dunford opted for a nuanced answer to this fairly straightforward question posed by Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member John McCain, R-Ariz.: “Are we winning the war in Afghanistan?”
“I’m concerned if we didn’t complete the mission, we would have areas in Afghanistan where al-Qaida would continue to operate, and we’d have a failed state neighboring Pakistan, where we have considerable national interests,” Dunford told the committee. “That would destabilize the entire region.”
In written answers to questions posed by the committee before the hearing, Dunford stated that counterterrorism operations will become the third of three “primary missions” for American forces beyond 2014. The top U.S. missions in Afghanistan beyond 2014, he said, will be training and advising indigenous forces and supporting civilian Afghan agencies.
But McCain has concerns about the Obama administration’s plans for getting to 2014, saying the operation is at a “strategic crossroads” amid a “perception of growing insecurity.”
To McCain, Obama’s focus on establishing a timeline to withdraw most Western forces is at the root of a resurgent Taliban/al-Qaida force, corruption inside the Afghan government, and “doubt … shared among our friends and enemies alike in Afghanistan and the region.
“This doubt has encouraged all actors in Afghanistan and the region to hedge their bets, which increases the worst instincts of the Afghan government and increases the chances of a return to civil conflict in our absence,” McCain said.
The committee’s top Republican described his “fear” that Obama will soon begin “implementing aggressive cuts to our forces in Afghanistan well before 2014 and then leaving a presence of supporting forces that is not equal to the tasks they need to perform.”
McCain and other committee members raised concerns that Washington appears on track to strike a status-of-forces agreement with Kabul that fails to set binding conditions to create an Afghan government and security entities capable of defending the nation. McCain suggested the administration might not be able to strike a forces agreement at all.
McCain laid out an alternative: Delaying any further withdrawal of U.S. forces beyond the 68,000 currently there. Commanders in Afghanistan tell him, McCain said, that they need all 68,000 U.S. troops to adequately set the table for a 2014 withdrawal.
“If we can’t accomplish the mission,” McCain said, “I’m not quite sure we should stay.”
Dunford told the panel he would need to conduct his own review of the situation in Afghanistan, including the number of American forces that will be needed after 2014, before talking publicly about troop levels. The current U.S. and NATO commander, Marine Gen. John Allen, is wrapping up his own assessment of needed force levels, and during a trip to Asia on Nov. 12, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters that “my hope is that we’ll be able to complete this process within the next few weeks.” He added, “I’m confident that we’re going to be able to get to the right number that we’re going to need for the post-2014 enduring presence.”
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, raised concerns about “a string of negative reports … over the past few months that have raised questions about various aspects of the campaign and the performance of the Afghan security forces.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham used words other than success and victory when describing the potential outcome of the conflict.
“I believe the Afghan war is salvageable,” the South Carolina Republican said. Graham asked Dunford whether a status-of-forces agreement that calls for a major U.S. presence beyond 2014 would be the difference between victory and losing.
“I believe so, senator,” Dunford told Graham.