General pushes for transition, not 'withdrawal,' in Afghanistan

During a visit to Washington this week, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan sought to bring attention to troops still serving there, amid waning media attention and a recent poll saying the war is now unpopular with the public. 

When Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford testified before the Senate on Wednesday, there were dozens of empty seats for the public, as well as at tables for journalists, for those accompanying witnesses, and even senators, in what used to be packed hearings. 

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The empty room prompted Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to comment on the lack of attendance at Wednesday's hearing and reminisce about when attendees hung on to every word. 

"We still got 33,000 young men and women in harm’s way in Afghanistan, doing some amazing work," Dunford told Pentagon reporters Thursday. 

"Do I want their story to be told? Yes. Do I want there to be more interest in what they’re doing? ... There’s no question," he said. 

Yet, despite the waning interest, Dunford said he was encouraged by lawmakers' support for a post-war mission when U.S. and NATO combat operations end in December. 

Dunford has recommended that the U.S. keep 8,000 to 12,000 international troops there to continue conducting a counterterrorism mission and to train and advise Afghan troops, who still need help with intelligence, logistics and standing up their air force, among other things.  

President Obama is still deciding on the number of troops he would leave after 2014, indicating during his State of the Union address that he wanted to leave a small troop presence in the country. Some in the administration have advocated withdrawing all troops, with Dunford recommended against. 

"With withdrawal, you cut your losses and you just leave Afghanistan to their devices and I suppose you use hope as a method for the threat of al Qaeda," Dunford said.

"Or you transition and you complete the work that we’re doing and develop the national security forces and you maintain an effective counterterrorism posture in the region to mitigate the very real threat," he said. 

"All the senators yesterday, in a very thoughtful way, understood that we need to transition properly," he said. "They know the consequences of not getting it right. ... I feel there’s very strong support for getting it right in Afghanistan."