U.S. Commander in Afghanistan Backs Slowing U.S. Withdrawal

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said he’s recommending alternatives to President Barack Obama’s timetable for withdrawing the remaining American troops there.

“I have provided options on adjusting our force posture,” Army General John Campbell said at a hearing Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee on security in Afghanistan. He said the options, which he didn’t spell out, would allow “more flexibility on glide slope,” or the pace of withdrawal, and “more flexibility on locations.”

Obama’s timetable calls for drawing down to about 5,500 troops by the end of this year -- a level that Campbell said would confine the U.S. presence to Kabul, the capital. Even as the U.S. president commits forces to fight Islamic State terrorists that have seized territory in Iraq and Syria, he’s pledged to bring home all but a small contingent of U.S. troops guarding the U.S. Embassy in Kabul by the time he leaves office in January 2017.

The alternatives under review would let U.S. forces continue training and advising Afghan security forces and conduct counterterrorism operations more broadly, Campbell said.

Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani has “asked for some flexibility” on troop levels, Campbell said.

McCain’s Comments

Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, the committee chairman, said the current troop withdrawal plan “no longer accurately reflects the facts and conditions on the ground.”

“If we’ve learned anything from Iraq, it should be that wars do not end just because politicians say so,” said McCain, who has long criticized Obama for announcing a timetable for withdrawal.

Democrats on the committee also expressed support for adjusting Obama’s timeline.

“We’ve got to maintain this progress,” said Senator Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat. “Everything we do should be conditions-based, not calendar-based.”

The U.S. proclaimed in December that combat operations in Afghanistan ended after more than 13 years in what has become America’s longest war. More than 2,300 Americans have died in Afghanistan, according to Pentagon figures compiled by Bloomberg.

About 10,000 troops remain in the country in an advisory role, down from a peak of more than 100,000 in 2011.

Islamic State

No decisions about changing the withdrawal timetable have been made, and Obama still plans to bring home almost all U.S. forces before he leaves office, an administration official has said.

“We cannot let the Taliban, al-Qaeda and ISIS increase their influence and access in Afghanistan,” McCain said, using an acronym for Islamic State’s former name.

While Campbell said he’s monitoring the emergence of Islamic State supporters in Afghanistan, so far it amounts to a “rebranding of a few marginalized Taliban.”

There’s been some talk of Islamic State support at universities in Afghanistan, and “you do have some of the Taliban breaking off and claiming allegiance toward ISIS,” he said.

In his written testimony, the general said there is “only a low probability” that the group “can establish a large, credible presence in Afghanistan.”

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