US Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford says the Taliban threat has diminished, but Afghan forces still need support. (US Marine Corps)
WASHINGTON — The Taliban no longer presents an “existential threat” to the Afghan government, the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan told a congressional panel Wednesday morning, but the Afghan armed forces still aren’t ready to operate alone without significant US and NATO assistance.
Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford told the Senate Armed Services Committee that while the power of al-Qaida in Afghanistan has largely been blunted, “extremist networks have now expanded in the country,” and “increased cooperation and coordination can be seen between al-Qaida and other extremists like the Haqqani Network, Tahrik-e Taliban Pakistan and Lashkar-e-Taiba.”
He also described an al-Qaida in Afghanistan that today is in “survival mode.”
As a result, he supports a force of 8,000 to 12,000 NATO troops to continue advising Afghan forces post-2014, along with several thousand US-only special operations forces to conduct counterterrorism operations. Most of those NATO troops in what he called operation “Resolute Support” would be American.
Without that follow-on force after this year, the general said, “I assess that without the Resolute Support mission, the progress made to date will not be sustainable.”
Specifically, although the Afghan combat forces are planning and conducting most missions on their own at the tactical level, they still have little to no capability at the ministerial level to plan, budgets, run acquisition programs, or conduct their own logistics and sustainment operations. The residual NATO force would focus on those activities, as well as continue to set up the Afghan air force and train Afghan special operations forces.
To do that, of course, additional wartime funding bills will have to pass the US Congress, and another $5 billion a year will have to flow to Kabul to sustain the Afghan army, air force, border police and local police forces, he said.
The United States would have to pay about $3 billion of that total, Dunford said, along with asking for another $600 million to $700 million to finish infrastructure projects in the upcoming 2015 wartime supplemental bill, which is expected to be released soon.
But before any of this can happen, the government in Kabul will have to sign a bilateral security agreement with Washington allowing US troops to remain there after the December withdrawal deadline. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign the deal, saying the next president — elections are scheduled for April — should sign it.
Since there is currently no clear front-unner in the electoral field, Karzai’s successor likely will not be sworn in until a runoff election is held, making August the target for a new administration to take power. Dunford said that if the agreement is not signed by September, NATO forces would have to begin drawing down quickly to ship everything out by December.
Just hours before the hearing began, the Canadian ambassador to Afghanistan held an assembly in Kabul with the last 100 Canadian soldiers serving there to mark the end of the 12-year Canadian mission in Afghanistan.
Canada deployed about 2,500 troops in the volatile Kandahar and Helmand provinces in the mid-2000s while the United States focused on the eastern provinces that border Pakistan. Canada lost 158 soldiers and one diplomat in combat, the highest per capita of all NATO forces deployed to Afghanistan. ■