By Kristina Wong and Jeremy Herb - 03/12/14 06:54 PM EDT
Topline: If the U.S. does not sign a bilateral security agreement with Afghanistan by September to allow U.S. troops to stay there after 2014, “an orderly withdrawal” of all U.S. troops would be at risk, said the top U.S. commander there on Wednesday.
"The risk of an orderly withdrawal begins to be high in September,” Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), told lawmakers at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
So far, all of the presidential candidates have indicated they would sign the agreement with the U.S., but getting an agreement signed could be contingent on the elections going smoothly and on time.
Dunford said he recommended the U.S. and coalition partners leave a force of about 8,000 to 12,000 troops there after the U.S. and NATO combat mission ends there in December 2014.
Dunford said the troops were needed in part to make sure al Qaeda’s core in Afghanistan and Pakistan does not regenerate.
“Where at one time al Qaeda could be isolated — as we intended to do in 2001 — extremist networks have now expanded in the country,” he said in a prepared statement.
“Increased cooperation and coordination can be seen between al Qaeda and other extremists like the Haqqani Network, Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan and Lashkar-e-Taiba,” he added.
In particular, he said the Haqqani Network remained the most virulent strain of the insurgency, the greatest risk to coalition forces, and a critical enabler of al Qaeda.
"If we don't stay there, we will have a new fight,” Dunford told lawmakers.
Also, U.S. and NATO troops still need to continue advising and training Afghan troops, who face a “potent and resilient threat” from the Afghan Taliban.
"I assess that without the Resolute Support mission, the progress made to date will not be sustainable," he said. "If we leave in 2014, the Afghan security forces would begin to deteriorate."
The White House is considering various plans, including one that would have 10,000 U.S. troops remain after December and would draw down to nearly zero by the time President Obama leaves office, according to The Wall Street Journal.
"There would be increased risk," Dunford replied to questioning by Sen. John McCainJohn McCainObamaCare hikes create opening for GOP Political map shifts on Trump The lazy political writing of 'SNL' MORE (R-Ariz.) about whether he supported such a plan.
McKeon objects to Ukraine bill: House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) wasted little time stating his strong objections to the “loony” Senate bill that gives aid to Ukraine and hits Russia with sanctions.
McKeon’s issue? The bill is offset in part by cutting Army and Air Force procurement accounts by $157 million.
“You don’t need an advanced degree in international relations to understand that the trillion dollars this President has cut from our military has emboldened international bullies like Vladimir Putin,” McKeon said in a statement.
"Now, as we are once again reminded why we need a strong military, Senate Democrats want to further raid the very accounts that make our military ready to meet a crisis," he said.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed the Ukraine bill in a 14-3 vote Wednesday afternoon.
Four Republicans voted for the bill despite the International Monetary Fund reform provisions opposed by some conservatives.
Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinGreat Lakes senators seek boost for maritime system Wikileaks: Durbin pushed unknown Warren for Obama bank regulator The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (D-Ill.), the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Defense subcommittee, said at the markup that he was told by the Pentagon comptroller the Defense Department had no objections to the offset.
Graham says CIA not justified in alleged spying: Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamTrump on primary rivals who don't back him: 'I don't know how they live with themselves' The Trail 2016: Who is really winning? Graham: GOP Senate could rein in Clinton White House MORE (R-S.C.) said that the CIA was not justified in spying on Senate Intelligence staffer computers even if the staffers acted in an illicit fashion.
“I think you can’t get to the bottom of this without looking at the allegations against the committee, but I don’t see a scenario where that would justify what the CIA is alleged to have done,” Graham told reporters after he was briefed on the situation Thursday.
Last week Graham told The Hill it should be “World War III” between the Senate and CIA if the spying did occur because of the constitutional issues it raises.
After his briefing with the committee Wednesday, Graham said he still did not know if the CIA did spy on the staffers.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne FeinsteinDianne FeinsteinDefense chief pledges to 'resolve' bonus clawback issue California National Guard official: Congress knew about bonus repayments Airbnb foes mobilize in Washington MORE (D-Calif.) accused the CIA on Tuesday of potentially violating the law and Constitution by searching computers used by the Intelligence Committee staff. CIA Director John Brennan later denied “hacking” the Senate’s computers.
Graham said there had to be some process to get to the bottom of the allegations against both the CIA and the committee, but he said he did not feel comfortable with the Justice Department doing it.
“This is really legally strange,” he said.
Meanwhile, Obama avoiding CIA-Senate fight: The White House is trying to distance itself from a fight between the CIA and Senate staffers, who allege the CIA was spying on them as they investigated the CIA’s interrogation programs.
"That's not something that is an appropriate role for me and the White House to wade into at this point," President Obama told reporters at a White House event Wednesday about economic opportunity for women.
His remarks came after White House spokesman Jay Carney said the CIA gave the administration a “heads up” it would file a report that suggested Senate staffers had committed a crime by taking documents from a CIA computer.
Senate Intelligence Committee staffers were granted access to millions of classified documents by the CIA, which the CIA then said were accessed illegally, committee chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) alleged Tuesday.
Feinstein has suggested a whistle-blower might have placed the document on the server, or that it was accidentally included in documents turned over by the agency. The agency has denied hacking into Senate computers.
Feinstein also charged that the CIA had spied on and removed documents from computers congressional investigators were using to examine the agency's controversial enhanced interrogation practices.
The controversy has pitted top legislative allies of the president against the administration. The administration says the issue is now being investigated by the Department of Justice.
“There is no legitimate reason to allege to the Justice Department that Senate any staff have committed a crime," Feinstein said Tuesday. “I view the acting general counsel's referral as a potential effort to intimidate this staff — and I am not taking it lightly.”
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