The U.S. military commitment in Afghanistan is likely to extend beyond the departure of most U.S. combat troops by 2014 as counter-terrorism forces and advisers stay behind, the nominee to lead American troops there said today.
Special forces to help hunt insurgents and advisory and assistance personnel are needed to sustain a “clear and compelling narrative” that the U.S. will support the Afghan government through 2014, Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford said at a Senate hearing on his nomination as the next commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
After that will be a “decade of transformation” in Afghanistan, he said.
The role of U.S. advisers will depend on what capability gaps remain in 2014, when President Barack Obama has pledged to remove the bulk of the 68,000 U.S. troops now there, Dunford told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Obama nominated Dunford, 56, to succeed General John Allen as commander in Afghanistan. Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, said at the end of the hearing he was “very very confident” Dunford will win confirmation by the full Senate soon after lawmakers return from their Thanksgiving break.
The Senate panel also had planned today to consider Allen’s nomination to become the next commander of U.S. forces in Europe and of NATO.
Allen’s nomination was placed on hold this week while the Pentagon’s inspector general reviews e-mails he exchanged with a Florida woman, Jill Kelley, whose complaints to the FBI triggered disclosures that resulted in the resignation last week of CIA director David Petraeus over an extramarital affair.
Dunford said today that he didn’t yet have a view on the pace of further U.S. withdrawals from Afghanistan. Senator John McCain of Arizona, the committee’s top Republican, urged delaying “the future withdrawal of U.S. forces until 2014, so as to give our commanders maximum flexibility and combat power to achieve our goals.”
McCain said the prospects for success in Afghanistan are being undercut by “the fundamental doubt about America’s resolve in this conflict.”
Dunford, who’s now the Marine deputy commandant, said in written answers to policy questions posed by the committee that Afghan security forces face challenges involving leadership, logistics, improvised roadside bombs, desertions and illiteracy.
Afghanistan’s insurgency has been weakened, although the Taliban “remains vested in southern Afghanistan, the Pashtun’s ideological homeland, and enjoys the support of the Haqqani network focused on eastern Afghanistan and Kabul,” Dunford said.
Insider attacks that have claimed the lives of 53 NATO and U.S. troops and wounded at least 80 so far haven’t had “the longer-term detrimental effect on morale the insurgents desire,” Dunford said.
McCain said “it is hard to overstate the damage these kinds of attacks do to the morale of our troops and to our broader mission of supporting the growth and professionalism of Afghan forces.”