The Afghan election crisis and unraveling of Iraq have US lawmakers and regional allies thinking US President Barack Obama should rethink his decision to withdraw virtually all US troops from Afghanistan by the close of 2016.
The White House says Afghanistan is a different situation from Iraq, mired in sectarian violence since shortly after US troops left, and the drawdown decision a done deal.
Some lawmakers say they are uncomfortable with Obama’s plan, which responds to the US public’s war fatigue and his desire to be credited with getting the US out of two conflicts. Ten senators, Republicans and Democrats, raised the drawdown issue at a congressional hearing on Thursday.
They argued that it is too risky to pull US troops out so quickly, especially with the Afghan presidential election in the balance. They do not want to see Afghanistan go the way of Iraq, and they fear that the Afghan security force, while making substantial gains, will not be ready for solo duty by the end of 2016.
Under Obama’s plan, announced in May before Sunni militants seized control of much of Iraq, about 20,200 US troops will leave Afghanistan during the next five months, dropping the US force to 9,800 by year’s end. That number would be cut in half by the end of next year, with only about 1,000 left in Kabul after the end of 2016.
US Marine General Joseph Dunford, the top US commander in Afghanistan, testified this week before the US Senate Armed Services Committee. He spoke highly of the 352,000-strong Afghan security force that assumed responsibility for the country in June last year and lauded them for keeping violence down during the recent election.
“We had over 300 campaign events involving thousands of people, some as large as 20,000,” Dunford said. “The Afghan forces secured all of those campaign events.”
The US withdrawal plan is based on being able to fix the Afghan security force’s shortcomings by the end of 2016.
Dunford described gaps in planning, programming, budgeting, delivery of spare parts, fuel payment systems — things the US military takes for granted. Afghanistan also needs to brush up its intelligence operation and develop its nascent air force.
Dunford laid out his best-case scenario under the current plan was that the Afghan presidential election is resolved; Afghan security forces continue to improve and are sustainable by 2017 so a small US presence inside the US embassy in Kabul — a “security cooperation office” — is sufficient; shortfalls in the Afghan forces are addressed; the US and other donor nations continue to fund the Afghan government, security forces and development projects.; and Afghan-Pakistani relations improve and the two nations have adequate capabilities — and the will — to counter terrorism.
His worst-case scenario is that the election remains unresolved; Afghan-Pakistan relations sour and both countries fall short of battling extremist militants; and al-Qaeda or other militant groups regain their footing in the border region and plot attacks against the US.
US Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a critic of Obama’s plan, said trying to meet the goals for a successful outcome was like “kicking a 65-yard field goal into the wind.”
“There’s a disaster in the making to our homeland and to losing all the gains we fought for inside of Afghanistan by drawing down too quick and not being able to help the Afghans in a reasonable fashion,” Graham said.
Earlier this month, US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan James Dobbins told the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee that despite declining security in Iraq, the president was not “presently disposed to reconsider the decision.”
“Afghanistan isn’t Iraq,” Dobbins said. “In Iraq, the people didn’t want us and not a single Iraqi politician was prepared to advocate our staying. In Afghanistan, the people overwhelmingly want us to stay, and every single contender in the presidential election said they would sign the bilateral security agreement” with the US.
“In Iraq, they could get along without us, at least temporarily, because they had plenty of money. In Afghanistan they can’t possibly get along without us,” he said.
US Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, the foreign relations committee chairman, said it was still hard not to draw the comparison.
“When the administration announced plans to completely draw down forces from Afghanistan by 2016, I was concerned about the plan, and I still have concerns,” Menendez said.
Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, the top Republican on the foreign relations committee, said he was happy that Obama had decided to leave 9,800 troops in Afghanistan next year. However, Corker was against putting a two-year timeline on a virtual complete withdrawal.
“It’s amazing. When we talk to people within the [US] administration that know things like this — and are pretty tuned in — they say, ‘Hey guys, don’t worry about this, this is just a plan, we’re going to reassess.’ But you’re telling me, as a special envoy, this is concrete — right now this is not just a plan, but this is the way it’s going to be. I think this reflects the president’s intentions,” Dobbins said.
He said that other countries in the region support the continuation of a US and NATO military mission in Afghanistan for at least several more years.
“Pakistan, Uzbekistan and China all fear Afghanistan becoming a safe haven for their own hostile militant groups,” he said. “India fears Afghanistan again becoming a training ground for terrorist groups targeting them. Russia remains concerned about the flow of narcotics. Iran and Pakistan fear new floods of refugees.”
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