Obama faces pressure to change Afghan withdrawal plans — again

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Pressure is growing on the White House to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan after a series of negative developments in the country.

A slew of setbacks has prompted concern about Obama’s current plan to withdraw all but 5,500 troops by the end of the year — and his presidency.

{mosads}And there have been some signs that the Pentagon will press for Obama to change his plans.

Gen. John Campbell, commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, has said he’d like to keep troops in the country as long as possible. Campbell is scheduled to testify on Tuesday before the House Armed Services Committee, where he’s expected to make that case again. Campbell will also testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee later this week.

Lt. Gen. John “Mick” Nicholson, who is slated to replace Campbell, said this week that he thinks an “enduring commitment” in Afghanistan is necessary and that he would have a recommendation on troop levels 90 days after taking command.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter, too, indicated this week the plan could change.

“Obviously we adjusted our plans, the president did, months ago in view of circumstances, and you can expect that that will occur in the future, as well,” he said at a press briefing Thursday. “We’re in this for the long run. That is, the president has made a commitment, and all the coalition members have, to stick with Afghanistan. That’s not just for the year 2016. It’s the year 2017 and beyond.”

Over the past few months, six U.S. airmen were killed by a suicide bomber and a Special Forces soldier was killed in a firefight. The administration also named ISIL-Khorasan, or ISIL-K, a growing group of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) loyalists in Afghanistan, a terrorist organization.

More broadly, the Pentagon has expressed concern that security has deteriorated.

Hawkish Republicans have long argued for a larger number of U.S. troops to stay in the country.

“This has been a constant Kabuki dance, where the administration announces we’re going to withdraw to this point, telling our enemies, by the way, here’s the numbers and here’s what you can expect from the United States,” Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) said at Senate Armed Services Committee hearing this week.

Obama has already reversed his plan to draw down to only an embassy presence in Afghanistan by the end of his second term.

In October, he announced the 9,800 U.S. troops now in the country would stay through most of 2016. Troops numbers would fall to 5,500 by the end of the year, he said.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a longtime critic of the president’s plans in Afghanistan, reiterated his concerns this week.

“Given the Taliban’s recent offensives and the rise of ISIL, conditions on the ground in Afghanistan clearly do not warrant a dangerous, calendar-driven withdrawal of U.S. forces,” he said in a statement to The Hill. “Moreover, a date certain for withdrawal only emboldens the Taliban and undermines reconciliation talks.”

Attempts to restart peace talks or reconciliation with the Taliban also threaten to complicate withdrawal plans. Diplomats from the United States, Afghanistan, Pakistan and China have been meeting to create a so-called roadmap for peace.

Administration officials have said they see the talks as the best way to end the conflict, but the Taliban has said they won’t negotiate until all foreign troops are out of the country. The next quadrilateral meeting is scheduled for Feb. 6.

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, cautioned that peace talks will be a difficult process.

“I’m encouraged that the parties are talking, but reconciliation won’t happen overnight,” he said in a statement to The Hill. “It’s going to take time and a lot of meticulous work to get the right people in place and the right process underway. That process starts with reconciliation between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Reconciliation between Afghanistan and the Taliban will be difficult under any circumstances, but improved Afghan-Pakistani relations are an essential first step.”

In the meantime, he said, the military mission needs to continue.

“American efforts should continue to focus on training, advising and assisting the Afghan security forces so that they can prevent al Qaeda and other terrorists from using Afghan territory to plan and conduct attacks,” Engel said.

Senate Democrats, too, have been questioning the wisdom of the drawdown plans.

For example, Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) suggested he’d be amenable to whatever recommendation Nicholson makes when he takes command regarding troops levels.

“If we don’t have enough there, it’s just going to make it worse and worse and worse,” Donnelly said at Senate Armed Services Committee hearing this week. “We can’t make a peach an orange. And so we really need to hear, unvarnished, exactly what the situation is and exactly what you need to have success.”

Tags Afghanistan Ash Carter Barack Obama ISIS John McCain Kelly Ayotte
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