General: Military favored ‘more ambiguous’ timetable for leaving Afghanistan

Military leaders would have preferred that President Obama not give a firm timetable for withdrawing forces from Afghanistan, the top U.S. commander in the country said in Thursday.

“I think all of us in uniform, to include the Afghans, would have preferred that that be a bit more ambiguous,” said Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, who is now commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

The president in May announced he intends to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by 2017. The drawdown date has drawn criticism from Republican critics and from former administration and military officials, who say it is based on political timelines and allows Taliban insurgents to bide their time.

Dunford, who was questioned about the strategy during his Senate confirmation hearing to become the next Marine Corps commandant, said he agreed with the president’s overall plan to drawdown U.S. troops from 30,000 to 9,800 by the end of the year, and roughly half that by the end of 2015. The troop presence would fall to about 1,000 by the end of 2016.

Several senators expressed fears that U.S. military gains in Afghanistan could be lost if U.S. troops are removed from the country too quickly.  

“I remain very troubled by the president's plan to draw down our forces based on arbitrary timelines instead of the advice of our commanders, and the facts on the ground," said Sen. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeDefense bill moves forward with lawmakers thinking about McCain Overnight Energy: EPA moves to roll back chemical plant safety rule | NASA chief says humans contribute to climate change | Pruitt gets outside lawyer House lawmakers to unveil water resources bill on Friday MORE (R-Okla.), the Senate Armed Service Committee’s ranking member.

“The president tried the same policy in Iraq in 2011. We can't afford to repeat that same mistake in Afghanistan,” he said.

The 9,800 U.S. forces in 2015 would stay through that year’s fighting season, along with 4,000 NATO troops, Dunford said. In 2016, the U.S. would “collapse back to a Kabul-centric approach.”

“And so the bases that are outside of Kabul would be closed, or transferred to the Afghan forces, or the Afghan government by 2016,” he said.

Dunford said there were still individuals in both Afghanistan and Pakistan who are determined to “replicate acts like 9/11” and that collapsing back to Kabul would be “a significant reduction in our overall counterterrorism capability.”

“The only way that we will be successful for us to be in Kabul [would] be if Afghanistan and Pakistan are capable of dealing with the threat in 2016,” he said.

Of the 9,800 U.S. forces to remain in Afghanistan in 2015, approximately 2,000 will be special operations forces, Dunford said.  

Half of those special operations forces would work with Afghan special operations forces on counterterrorism operations, and half would be dedicated solely to the counterterrorism mission, he said.