US general worried about Afghan terrorists

US general worried about Afghan terrorists
© Getty Images

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan has told The Hill in an exclusive interview that he is “worried” about terrorists making a comeback unless U.S. and Afghan forces keep pressure on them.

Army Gen. John Campbell, when asked directly about whether Afghanistan could again become a terrorist safe haven, avoided giving a definitive answer. 

ADVERTISEMENT
He said the United States still has two years to build the capability of Afghan forces, even as American troops continue to withdraw. There are now roughly 10,600 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and their numbers will be reduced to about 1,000 by the end of next year, with many based at the U.S. Embassy. 

Campbell said he is “worried about the counterterrorism piece here and making sure that we continue to keep pressure on them.” 

“We have significantly degraded the al Qaeda capability, but we believe if we don’t keep pressure on that, it’s only a matter of time — it will be able to grow very quickly,” Campbell continued.

His remarks differ from recent comments by President Obama, who sounded much more confident during a Christmas Day visit to troops in Hawaii. Afghanistan “is not going to be a source of terrorist attacks again,” Obama said.

Although the combat mission has ended, U.S. forces are facing a higher number of attacks in some parts of Afghanistan, Campbell said.

He said that last month, there were more Taliban rocket attacks on Bagram Airfield, just an hour’s drive from Kabul, than in any comparable period during the 13-year war. 

“It’s not combat, but it continues to be a very dangerous environment that we have our soldiers in,” Campbell said. 

American troops are now focused on training, advising and assisting Afghan forces, as well as undertaking some counterterrorism activities.

The administration has been steadfast about maintaining its troop drawdown schedule. Campbell said his intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets, such as spy planes and drones, are also going down, having been reduced 65 percent since 2011. 

Funding for the mission in Afghanistan has also been shrinking.

Congressional appropriations for the Afghan forces have dropped dramatically in the past several years, from $11.2 million in 2012 to $5.1 million in 2013, $4.7 million in 2014 and $4.1 million in 2015.

Critics argue that the planned drawdown is premature.

“It has to be conditions-based, or it’s the Iraq movie all over again,” Sen. John McCainJohn McCainCoats: Trump seemed obsessed with Russia probe The Hill's Whip List: Senate ObamaCare repeal bill Meghan McCain slams 'felon' Dinesh D'Souza over tweets mocking father's captivity MORE (R-Ariz.) said on Tuesday. McCain, the new chairman of the Armed Services Committee, was alluding to the instability and bloodshed that has plagued that nation since the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

Campbell said he would recommend any changes to the drawdown schedule if he felt it was necessary. But he emphasized his view that “the Taliban are losing.”  

The general added, however, that he wanted to have as many troops as possible for as long as possible. 

“I still want to see what we can do with 9,800 and continue to train, advise and assist at that level for as long as we can go. And then make sure we have a responsible drawdown,” he said. 

The original plan was to have U.S. troop numbers in Afghanistan reduced to 9,800 by Jan. 1, but the president later decided that an additional 1,000 would stay until troops from coalition partners arrived in their place in the spring. 

Campbell’s remarks come amid reports that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has been recruiting in Afghanistan. Over the weekend, a video emerged showing fighters in Afghanistan pledging allegiance to ISIS. 

Campbell said that, although the Taliban and ISIS have different ideologies, a “younger piece” of the Taliban would look for opportunities to unite with ISIS and “bring that into Afghanistan.” 

“Again, another reason to keep the pressure,” he said. 

He also acknowledged that the Taliban had shadow governors in many remote areas of Afghanistan where there were no official security forces.

“This continues to be a very dangerous place, and the Afghans continue to be at war,” he said.