WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 06: US Army Gen. John Campbell commander of the Resolute Support Mission and United States Force Afghanistan, testifies during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill September 6, 2015 in Washington, DC. The committee questioned Campbell on the situation in Afghanistan and last weeks US airstrike on a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders that killed at least 22 people. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — The top US commander in Afghanistan says he has provided the White House with "courses of action" that would keep more American forces there in 2016 and beyond, and said current plans to bring shrink the US presence there need revising.
Army Gen. John Campbell told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday he has submitted to President Barack Obama "options above and beyond" current plans to draw down to an Embassy-based force by the end of 2016 – potentially ending Obama's plans bring home nearly all US troops before he leaves office.
"It was envisioned in mid-2014 that we would transition to a normalized Embassy presence by 2017," Campbell said. "Since that time, much has changed: We'veWe're seen a rise in Daesh, an increased al-Qaida presence in Afghanistan, and now we have strong partner parters in [Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, the chief executive officer of Afghanistan]."
Yet Campbell said Afghan forces –- the focus of the US train and assist program – "cannot handle the fight alone." He characterized local forces as "uneven and inconsistent" this fighting season, and said they lack crucial rotary wing aviation, combined arms, intelligence and maintenance capabilities.
The remarks come as Obama weighs a proposal to keep as many as 5,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond 2016, the Washington Post reported, citing senior US officials. The plan, reportedly from Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, would focus the remaining American force primarily on counterterrorism operations against the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and other direct threats to the United States.
Campbell, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has reportedly developed as many as five options for a post-2016 presence that range from a small embassy force to as many as 7,000 troops, though Campbell declined to discuss those options before the committeeTuesday.
Obama announced in March that he would abandon plans to bring troop levels down to 5,000 by the end of this year, and that the current force of about 9,800 would stay into 2016. Yet Obama, at the time, reiterated he would end the military mission in Afghanistan before he leaves office in 2017.
Under the current plans, the US presence would go down to about 1,000 troops by the end of 2016, based in Kabul, limiting the train-and-assist mission and cutting back on US counter-terrorism operations.
SASC Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., ripped the administration for pulling back amid Taliban gains and the rise of the Islamic State in Afghanistan. McCain was incredulous that the president had not yet settled his draw-down plans.
"Most commanders in chief I'm familiar with say give me the most efficient way to get us to our goal, which is a free, stable Afghanistan," McCain said. "It's curious times."
The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq has driven concerns that the US is pulling out of Afghanistan too quickly. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.VaVa., asked whether the US risked a similar situation, but Campbell reiterated his confidence in the Afghan government.
"Afghanistan is not Iraq," Campbell said. "You have a government who wants you there, a government who wants counter-terrorism, and a fighting force that is very different."
Campbell acknowledged Afghan militants who identify with the Islamic State have surged from "nascent to operationally emergent," in recent months. He characterized these fighters as "disenfranchised Taliban" who have "changed tee shirts," in hopes of attracting support.
At the hearing, Campbell acknowledged a US air strike on a hospital run by medical charity MSF, which killed 22 people and sparked international outrage. Campbell said Afghan forces called in the strike, which came after the Taliban overran Kunduz in their most spectacular victory in 14 years.
Campbell would not go into detail on that incident, but said US forces were on the ground. near the fight. He noted that multiple investigations are underway.
"To be clear, the decision to provide aerial fires was a US decision, made within the US chain of command, the hospital was mistakenly struck, we would never target a protected medical facility," Campbell said.