General backs off call for more troops in Afghanistan than Obama has sought

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan on Tuesday backed off claims that the United States will need a substantially larger post-war force than President Obama is seeking. 

Gen. Joseph Dunford said it’s too early to tell whether Afghanistan will need the more than 13,000 troops that he had previously recommended remain in the country after 2014. 

Dunford’s shift drew a furious response from Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee, who pressed him to articulate his views.

“I can’t tell you how disappointed I am in your testimony, general,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told Dunford during a hearing Tuesday on the future of Afghanistan. 

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Dunford told committee members the situation in the country was too fluid for him to support the 13,600-man U.S. force for postwar Afghanistan that was first proposed by former Central Command chief Gen. James Mattis. 

With Afghans taking more control over the war in the months ahead, Dunford said U.S. commanders needed more time before settling on a troop figure. 

But McCain said the lack of a specific plan has only made things more difficult for departing U.S. troops and the Afghan forces that are preparing to take their place.

“For you to tell this committee that ... [we will] make that decision later on ... that’s one of the reasons why we’re seeing a lot of difficulties that we are seeing,” the Arizona Republican said.

McCain said the lack of a strong U.S. military commitment in hotspots like Iraq, Libya and Syria is creating instability in Afghanistan.

“They know which way the wind is blowing,” McCain said. “They see us withdrawing every place in the world.”

Dunford defended his decision not to address postwar force numbers, saying American commanders needed more time to see how Afghan forces perform on the battlefield with less U.S. support. 

“This is the Afghans’ first summer in the lead,” Dunford told McCain, referring to the fighting season in the country. “I believe this summer will be the bellwether for Afghan performance into 2014 and beyond.” 

The panel’s Democratic chairman, Sen. Carl Levin (Mich.), defended Dunford’s decision to remain mum on U.S. postwar plans in Afghanistan. 

“There are certain things that he needs to put in place before he makes his recommendations,” Levin told The Hill after the hearing. 

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Dunford’s silence during the hearing suggests there is a battle brewing between the military and White House over postwar planning.

Dunford “is getting a lot of pressure from political people to pick a number less than 13,600,” Graham told reporters after the hearing. 

“I can tell you, the number will matter,” Graham said. “If the number is too small, we will fail.” 

In March, Dunford and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham reportedly told House Armed Services Committee chief Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif) they backed Mattis’s recommendation for 13,600 troops.

The move put Dunford and Mattis at odds with the president, who has reportedly championed a postwar U.S. force of between 8,000 to 10,000 troops.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey has also publicly supported the smaller range of troops. 

“I have never publicly talked about numbers …  never have,” Dunford told The Hill when asked why he backed off his support for Mattis’s troop recommendations.

However, the four-star general did not deny that he had conveyed his support for the 13,600-man force to McKeon during his visit to Afghanistan in March. 

Graham said Obama needs to listen to commanders on the ground as he crafts an exit strategy for the long-running conflict.

“When our generals tell us that 13,600 is sort of the right number, the bottom line number, I hope we do not deviate too much from that,” Graham said.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) dismissed talk of a rift between the president and U.S. commanders.

“The generals will make their professional judgments … in fact, you may find some generals who disagree with each other” as postwar planning continues, Reed said on Thursday. 

“There is a process. [Dunford] will make his recommendations, which will have significant weight,” Reed said, “but then ultimately the president will make his decision.”

Roughly 66,000 American troops remain in Afghanistan, with half of those forces scheduled to withdraw from the country this spring. 

The final 32,000 American forces remaining in the country will start coming home following Afghanistan’s presidential election in April 2014 — officially ending America’s combat role there. 

Levin said the panel would get more answers on postwar troop plans when Dempsey and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel appear before the committee on Thursday. 

Dempsey “has given an estimate ... and he is chairman of the Joint Chiefs and his estimate is probably more important than Dunford’s anyway,” Levin said.