General: ‘Afghanistan is at an inflection point’

The commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan is reviewing plans for troop levels after 2016, but did not specify Tuesday what size of force will be necessary.

Gen. John Campbell outlined the challenges facing coalition and Afghan forces and warned the situation could deteriorate should the U.S. not extend its commitment to the country.

“Afghanistan is at an inflection point,” he said to the House Armed Services Committee. “I believe if we do not make deliberate, measured adjustments, 2016 is at risk of being no better, and possibly worse, than 2015.

Right now, President Obama plans to reduce the 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan to 5,500 by the end of the year. But there are hints, such as Campbell’s testimony, that the Pentagon will push Obama to change course.

When asked for specifics on what further commitment the United States should make, Campbell demurred.

“It’s not as simple as I need X amount of people,” he said. “You can have the force, but if you don’t have the authorities, it doesn’t make a difference. You can have the authorities, but if you don’t have the resources to execute the authorities, it doesn’t make a difference.”

The mission is Afghanistan now is twofold: train, advice and assist Afghan forces and conduct counterterrorism operations.

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), chairman of the committee, said he’s concerned the U.S. mission in Afghanistan doesn’t have the resources it needs to succeed.

“It just says to me as a matter of common sense that when we go from 852 installations to 20, that it is harder to keep up with the enemy and to prevent another attack on our homeland,” Thornberry said.

Among the more recent negative developments, six U.S. airmen and a Special Forces soldier were killed. Also, a group of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) loyalists is gaining strength. The Taliban has been resurgent, and al Qaeda remains a threat despite its weakened state.

Of the 407 district centers in Afghanistan, Campbell said, eight are under insurgent control, 18 are under insurgent influence and up to 94 district centers are “at risk.”

“These figures make two clear points,” Campbell said. “One, that approximately 70 percent of the inhabited parts of Afghanistan are either under government influence or government control, and two, the importance of prioritizing Afghan resources to ensure key district centers do not fall into insurgent influence or control.”

Right now, NATO is crafting a five-year plan for involvement in Afghanistan, which Campbell said he believes the United States should also do.

The Afghan government wants that commitment, Campbell added.

“Many of the Afghan security forces want large numbers,” he said. “They want more resources. They understand they have gaps and seams they need to continue to work on, and they see NATO and especially the United States as the only one that can really help them get to the level they need.”

When pressed on how long an economic commitment the United States should make, Campbell said he doesn’t foresee Afghanistan being able to fully defend itself until 2024.

In terms of necessary military commitment, he said he wouldn’t compare it to South Korea or Germany as some have. That’s because, he said, the U.S. left thousands more troops in those countries than being talked about for Afghanistan.

Still, some committee members expressed wariness that the mission in Afghanistan continues to drag on. 

“Will the job ever be done,” asked Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) “Do we have to accept the fact that we are there indefinitely?”

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