WASHINGTON – The top general in Afghanistan said Thursday the U.S. will reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan by about 40 percent by the end of this year. He testified before the Senate Committee on Armed Services.
The committee heard from Gen. John Campbell, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, on the situation in the recovering country. He said the likelihood is that the country will be no better and may be worse than it was last year.
Afghan forces still face issues with intelligence and air support, Campbell said.
However, at least 70 percent of the problems facing Afghan security forces result from poor local leadership. The Afghan National Army has replaced 92 general officers to date.
“I like to say that what we have accomplished here is akin to building an airplane while in flight,” Campbell said. “While these systems are far from perfect, the foundation has been laid, and we continue to advise and assist the Afghans as they build a sustainable security force that is enduring and capable of standing on its own.”
Despite the instability, the number of U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan would drop to 5,500 from 9,800 at the end of 2016 on orders from President Barack Obama. Many committee members questioned if the reduced number of troops is enough to get the job done.
“Do you think that we would be prepared by the end of 2016 to go down to 5,500, given the requirements for both counter-terrorism and training advisement?” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., repeatedly asked. “Are they going to be able to do that with 5,500 troops? I think that’s a very straightforward question.”
The outcome depends on whether Afghan troops continue to make military reforms, Campbell said. Adjustments might be necessary after future assessments of the situation.
“You can’t make those adjustments on the fly,” McCain said. “We all know that, general.”
The emergence of the Islamic State group in Afghanistan in 2015 further complicated operating conditions. The Taliban has adjusted their strategy to counter ISIS and other insurgent groups. The dynamic has served as a distraction for the Taliban, Campbell said.
Issues will carry over well beyond 2016, such as the Afghan Air Force’s limited air support capability.
“You’re talking about 2015 being tough … did the military recommend 5,500, or was this just a number picked by the White House?” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asked more than once.
Campbell defended the lower number.
Maybe reducing troops by the end of 2016 is the best military option available, Graham said. “I just have real serious doubts about that.”
The decision allows the U.S. military to be flexible with its approach, Campbell said.
“If the Afghans cannot improve, we’re going to have to make some adjustments, and that means that number will most likely go up,” Campbell said.
Reach Erick Payne at [email protected] or 202-408-1489. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
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