Top US general makes case for keeping troops in Afghanistan

Top US general makes case for keeping troops in Afghanistan
© Greg Nash

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan argued for keeping a military presence in the country at a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday.

"Afghanistan is at a critical juncture. So is our campaign," Gen. John CampbellJohn Bayard Taylor CampbellHigh stakes in Nigeria's elections for impoverished citizenry — and US interests North Carolina county school board ends spanking policy General: 'Afghanistan is at an inflection point' MORE told lawmakers.

In his second hearing on Capitol Hill this week, Campbell said conditions on the ground have changed since President Obama first drew up plans to draw down the current 9,800-level U.S. force in Afghanistan to a 1,000-troop embassy security force.

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Pakistani military operations have pushed Taliban fighters into eastern and northern Afghanistan and the emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the country has worsened the security situation, he said.

The Taliban have also stepped up attacks, following the disclosure that their spiritual leader, Mullah Omar, was dead, said Campbell. Those developments come as the NATO-coalition has shrunk from 140,000 troops to less than 14,000 in recent years.

Campbell also argued that American assistance has been crucial to helping build the Afghan security forces, which continue to need support in certain areas: intelligence gathering, command and control in battle, and figuring out how to best use their forces.

He said the U.S. spent $4.1 billion on training Afghan security forces in 2015 and will spent $3.86 billion in 2016.

The hearing comes as Obama is weighs altering the planned U.S. drawdown, following a string of bad news from Afghanistan.

Last month, reports claimed U.S. troops have been punished for trying to stop their Afghan counterparts from abusing young boys. Last week, the Taliban overran the strategic city of Kunduz, and on Saturday, the U.S. accidentally bombed a Doctors Without Borders hospital, killing 22.

Campbell has reportedly presented five different drawdown options to Obama and is pushing to keep more troops in the country.

The president must factor the danger of withdrawing troops too quickly and of a possible Iraq-like scenario, where the U.S. exit was followed by a spike in violence. But the president has also vowed to end America's longest war.

Campbell warned that if the U.S. draws down to only 1,000 in Kabul, there would not be enough forces to ensure Afghanistan does not become a safe haven for terrorists.

"There is no counterterrorism structure force in those numbers," he said bluntly.

The president is reportedly considering a plan to leave 3,000 to 5,000 U.S. troops in the country after the end of 2016, which would prolong U.S. military involvement in the country after he leaves office.

Campbell also acknowledged the recent Taliban takeover of Kunduz, but said Afghan forces "rallied, and they've regained control of most of the city."

"They still desire, need and deserve our assistance," he said.

Campbell faced a heavy grilling from lawmakers who questioned why after 14 long years of war, the U.S. should extend its presence.

"We are faced with a debt of 18 trillion dollars," said Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), a strident war critic and fiscal conservative. "We are going to be debating in about a month a debt ceiling increase so we can borrow more money from foreign governments primarily to pay the bills for last year.

"The American taxpayer has got to know at some point in time there's going to be an end to this investment," he said.

Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) also blasted Campbell's assessment.

"It's pretty much been a failure," she said. "I've heard this. I've heard this for 14 years. We're going to get better. It's going to be more efficient. We're getting there."

"The reality is that we're not," she said. "Mr. Jones was right."

Campbell had a sympathetic audience from many, including Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) and ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.).

"Afghanistan remains a central node in the terrorism fight. It would be a tragic mistake for the United States to disengage from a fight where we have a willing partner and where so much can be accomplished at a relatively modest cost," Thornberry said. "We do not want to look back one day and wish we had chosen a different course."

"In all our discussions of Afghanistan, whether about accidents in combat or human rights abuses or ongoing difficulties, we should not lose sight of the fact that we are in Afghanistan because of our own interests," Smith added.

"In the past, the President has shown great flexibility in adjusting this schedule to account for trends on the ground, and I believe he both should do so now and is likely to do so," he said.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter signaled on Wednesday that the administration would step away from its drawdown plan.

"I have asked all of the NATO partners to remain flexible and to consider the possibility of making adjustments into the plan, which is now two and a half years old, for the presence in Afghanistan in the coming years," he said at a press conference in Belgium.

"I think all of them who spoke to the issue indicated a willingness to continue with the mission in Afghanistan, which is very much the United States' position, and capitalize upon the great work that we have done for these many years in the past."