Marine General Joseph Dunford told senators on Thursday that military commanders did not recommend that President Obama announce plans to completely withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan in 2017, The Associated Press reports.
Dunford said that U.S. and Afghan military leaders would have preferred the president be “a bit more ambiguous” with the press about the exact number of troops the U.S. was planning to withdraw. Top officials did not want exact troop numbers being advertised to the enemy.
Dunford spoke to the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday, testifying in his nomination hearing to become the next commandant of the Marine Corps. He gave a harsh assessment of Afghan security forces, saying there will be massive intelligence-gathering gaps, and added that the Afghan air force left something to be desired. the Afghan military will be “capable of conducting the kind of operations we’re conducting.”
“In accordance with the plan right now, we would have … a Kabul-centric approach,” he said, “… It would be a significant reduction in our overall counterterrorism ability.” Dunford added that in 2016 “we still expect that the aviation enterprise will still have some capability gaps.”
The General told the panel that he agrees with the U.S. pace of withdrawal for this year and next year, however he doesn’t believe in the president’s use of a “hard date” for complete troop withdrawal in 2016. He said that military officials prefer to regularly re-evaluate troop withdrawal plans, adjusting for changing conditions.
Dunford emphasized the importance of bringing the Afghan air force up to par, strongly endorsing the $1 billion U.S. contract with Russia to provide Russian MI-17 helicopters to Afghanistan. He added that canceling this contract due to the heightened U.S. tension with Russia would be “catastrophic” to Afghan counterterrorism operations.
“We knew, when we left Iraq, that there was work remaining to be done,” Dunford said. “In Afghanistan, we have a chance to get that right. And my argument, in fact, is for us to do a responsible transition from Afghanistan, as opposed to a withdrawal.”
Dunford is nominated to replace General James F. Amos, who is retiring from the commandant position after four years. Dunford is expected to easily pass through the confirmation process and officially take over sometime this fall.