The Cable

Top U.S. Commander: American Troops Need to Stay in Afghanistan

The U.S. Army general leading the 14,000-strong NATO force in Afghanistan made a plea on Tuesday to leave American forces in Afghanistan longer to train the faltering Afghan security forces, a move that would require President Barack Obama to scrap his December 2016 timeline for withdrawing the last U.S. troops from the country. Afghans still ...

An Afghan National Army (ANA) soldier stands guard outside Jalalabad Airport where a US C-130 military transport plane crashed in Jalalabad on October 2, 2015. The Taliban claimed October 1 to have shot down a US military transport plane in eastern Afghanistan in a crash that killed 11 people, as the battle for Kunduz raged after the emboldened militants briefly seized the city.The Taliban's stunning success in Kunduz, their biggest tactical success since 2001, marks a blow for Afghanistan's NATO-trained forces, who have largely been fighting on their own since December 2014. NATO has not yet confirmed the cause of Friday's crash. The Taliban regularly claim to have shot down military aircraft.Our mujahideen have shot down a four-engine US aircraft in Jalalabad," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said on Twitter."Based on credible information 15 invading forces and a number of puppet troops were killed." AFP PHOTO / Noorullah Shirzada        (Photo credit should read Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images)
An Afghan National Army (ANA) soldier stands guard outside Jalalabad Airport where a US C-130 military transport plane crashed in Jalalabad on October 2, 2015. The Taliban claimed October 1 to have shot down a US military transport plane in eastern Afghanistan in a crash that killed 11 people, as the battle for Kunduz raged after the emboldened militants briefly seized the city.The Taliban's stunning success in Kunduz, their biggest tactical success since 2001, marks a blow for Afghanistan's NATO-trained forces, who have largely been fighting on their own since December 2014. NATO has not yet confirmed the cause of Friday's crash. The Taliban regularly claim to have shot down military aircraft.Our mujahideen have shot down a four-engine US aircraft in Jalalabad," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said on Twitter."Based on credible information 15 invading forces and a number of puppet troops were killed." AFP PHOTO / Noorullah Shirzada (Photo credit should read Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images)

The U.S. Army general leading the 14,000-strong NATO force in Afghanistan made a plea on Tuesday to leave American forces in Afghanistan longer to train the faltering Afghan security forces, a move that would require President Barack Obama to scrap his December 2016 timeline for withdrawing the last U.S. troops from the country.

Afghans still “cannot handle the fight alone” without American close air support and a special operations counterterrorism force to hit Taliban leadership, Gen. John Campbell told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “It will take time for them to build their human capital” in logistics and managing their forces in the field, meaning Afghan forces will need international assistance “well beyond this year.”

Campbell said he has provided the White House a variety of options on troop strength, but he hedged when asked specifically how many of the 9,800 American troops should remain in Afghanistan and for how long.

The testimony comes just days after a U.S. airstrike in the city of Kunduz hit a charity hospital run by Doctors Without Borders, killing 22 and injuring another 37 civilians. The attack has sparked international outrage, particularly as the American explanation for the tragedy has continued to change. Initial reports said U.S. forces were under fire at the location, but that story changed on Monday, when Campbell said Afghan forces had requested the strike by an AC-130 gunship after reporting that they had come under Taliban fire.

Just before Campbell’s testimony, Dr. Joanne Liu, president of the aid group, released a statement charging the hospital was “deliberately bombed” and that the group is “working on the presumption of a war crime.” The group has maintained that it had provided the GPS coordinates of the hospital to coalition and Afghan officials, as recently as Sept. 29.

On Capitol Hill Tuesday, Campbell took more responsibility, telling the panel, “To be clear, the decision to provide [airstrikes] was a U.S. decision, made within the U.S. chain of command. The hospital was mistakenly struck. We would never intentionally target a protected medical facility.”

He and other senior U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Ash Carter, have promised a full investigation into the incident.

The three-hour hearing focused new attention on the Afghan war, the longest in American history and one that has long since faded from the public consciousness. Much of the general’s testimony had a familiar ring, as it reflected the script that U.S. generals have followed for much of the past decade-plus in Iraq and Afghanistan: a plea for more time, and more training, to solidify the small gains in security that local forces have made.

In recent recommendations sent to the White House in September, Campbell proposed keeping as many as 8,000 U.S. troops in the country through 2017 and beyond, Foreign Policy has reported, but Campbell told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “our support cannot and should not be indefinite.”

Pressed by lawmakers to criticize Obama’s plan to leave Afghanistan in little over a year, Campbell would only say his job is to provide options to the White House. “I do believe that we have to provide our senior leadership options different than the current plan,” he said, which calls for keeping a 1,000-troop embassy presence only.

The 2016 withdrawal plan is now outdated, however, Campbell said. “When the president made that decision [to withdraw], [he] did not take into account the changes over the past two years,” including the rise of the Islamic State, the 2014 election of a more pro-U.S. government under President Ashraf Ghani, and a series of renewed offensives under an emboldened Taliban leadership.

Since the end of U.S. and NATO combat operations at the end of 2014, Afghan forces have taken the lead in the fight and have suffered record casualties on the battlefield as a result. About 7,800 Afghans have been wounded and 4,700 killed in combat so far this year, an increase of 60 percent over 2014, according to figures released by the Pentagon in July.

The White House appears to favor a recommendation put forth by Gen. Martin Dempsey, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, before he retired last month, which would maintain a U.S. presence of about 5,000 troops focused mainly on counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan, according to recent reports.

Campbell’s message about staying the course in Afghanistan found a willing audience in Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, who called the 2016 pullout plan a “politically motivated withdrawal.” McCain warned the United States is at risk of another disastrous security situation like the one in Iraq, where the Islamic State captured the cities of Ramadi, Mosul, and Fallujah, along with vast swaths of Anbar province, after American troops left at the end of 2011.

“Wars do not end just because politicians say so,” McCain said.

Photo credit: Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images

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