WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., on Monday criticized President Barack Obama for opting to halt a “steady” removal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.
Breaking with the White House, Levin told a Council on Foreign Relations forum here that withdrawing U.S. troops at a steady pace from the war-torn nation would send a message to often-recalcitrant Afghanistan leaders and force them to keep building an effective security force.
Obama and administration officials have opted against bringing home any additional troops beyond existing plans. In his February State of the Union address, the president announced 34,000 of the remaining 68,000 American forces will leave Afghanistan by the same time in 2014.
“I was disappointed that President Obama, instead of deciding to reduce troops in 2013 at a ‘steady pace’ — as he said he would and as I had urged him to do — effectively decided against further troops reductions until the end of this year.”
Going back to a steady withdrawal policy would keep the pressure on Afghan officials to “continue taking more responsibility for their own security;” deliver a “vote of confidence” in those indigenous forces; and “have an added benefit of sending a message to [Afghanistan President Hamid] Karzai that he cannot have it both ways,” Levin said.
Returning to the steady troop-removal policy, Levin said, would also accede to the desires of some Afghan village elders.
“We want you to train our Army and leave,” a group of village elders told Levin and other visiting U.S. senators several years ago. “We will invite you back someday as guests.”
Levin said he harbors “no illusions” about the costs of the Afghanistan conflict or the “challenges we confront.”
But he said “the negative view of our involvement is wrong.”
The retiring SASC chair says the security situation in Afghanistan has improved, including the building of a robust and effective Afghan National Security Force.
Levin, who recently visited eastern Afghanistan with the committee’s vice chairman, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., noted Afghan troops now perform missions without the help or presence of American or NATO troops about 80 percent of the time. He contends that figure rarely drops below 70 percent. Just one year ago, that same rate was just 30 percent in the east, Levin said.
The Obama administration’s plan to remove most U.S. and Western troops by the end of next year is built upon indigenous forces being capable of securing their nation.
Afghan forces are “clearly capable of carrying the fight to the Taliban, and they are doing so effectively,” Levin said.
Levin panned Karzai for saying recently that the Taliban and Washington were in cahoots. Levin dubbed those “absurd remarks that endanger U.S. and coalition troops by encouraging the Taliban to take advantage of the apparent disarray they might see.”
He called Karzai “erratic” for stating in that speech that the “Taliban are serving American interests while saying in the same speech that America is ‘a strategic friend and ally.’”
On Syria, Levin broke with the Obama administration by saying he wishes it had not moved in such a “deliberate” way in supporting forces attempting to oust Bashir Assad.
“I would go somewhat further than the president,” Levin said. For instance, Levin said he would take out some of Assad’s air defense systems. And, if Turkish officials were willing, he would set up a zone where Syrians could seek safe haven from the two-year-old civil war.
Finally, Levin predicted Congress and the White House will find a way to turn off the remaining nine years of the decade-spanning $500 billion cut to planned U.S. military spending.
He believes, however, the $46 billion cut to 2013 Pentagon spending under sequestration will occur in full.