US commander in Afghanistan sees 'significant' risk of Al Qaeda returning

Gen. Joseph Dunford, the top US commander in Afghanistan, tells senators he is 'not confident' the Afghan security forces will be able to sustain themselves after US troops leave.

Lauren Victoria Burke/AP
Gen. Joseph Dunford testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, July 17, 2014, before the Senate Armed Service Committee hearing on his nomination to be the next commandant of the Marine Corps. Speaking before the committee, Dunford laid out a sober assessment of the Afghan security forces, saying there will still be critical aviation and intelligence-gathering gaps in their ability to conduct counterterrorism operations in 2016. He said the current plan requires US forces to shift to Kabul in 2016, significantly reducing US ability to assist in the counterterror fight.

In America’s longest war, words like “victory” have long faded from the US military’s lexicon.

But even by these standards, the prospects that the top US commander on the ground offered Thursday for Afghanistan’s future were notably less than robust.

The current pace of withdrawal of US troops from the country “could result in Afghanistan forces being sustainable,” Gen. Joseph Dunford told lawmakers, a phrase that fell short even of faint praise.

There is an equally good chance, too, that even after 13 years of war, Afghanistan could revert back to being a safe haven for terrorists, he said.

When asked to rate the possibility that Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters could migrate back to Afghanistan after US forces draw down and resume training operations in pre-9/11 mode, Dunford called that risk “significant.”  

He told senators, too, that he did not necessarily support President Obama’s decision to announce a withdrawal date for US forces in Afghanistan.

“I think all of us in uniform, including the Afghans, would have preferred for that to be a bit more ambiguous,” he said in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Dunford was called to testify because he is nominated to be the next commandant of the Marine Corps, the service’s top officer. But during his confirmation hearing he faced tough questions about his current job commanding US war efforts.

During his testimony, Dunford acknowledged that he is “not confident” that Afghan security forces will be able to sustain themselves after US troops leave.

That’s because the Afghan military is still not particularly skilled at doing things like budgeting, or ordering spare parts for their vehicles, or paying their soldiers, Dunford said. 

The other big problem is that it does not have its own intelligence capabilities or a developed aviation system. Though it is in need of special operations forces to fight insurgent operatives and lingering Al Qaeda elements, the Catch-22 is that it cannot adequately develop these forces without intelligence or aviation assets, Dunford explained.

Women are also not faring well in Afghanistan, especially when it comes to integrating them into key government jobs, including military positions. “That’s not a particularly good news story,” Dunford told lawmakers.

The goal has been to have the Afghan national army and police force be comprised of 10 percent women, but the number is currently closer to one percent. “I wouldn’t for a minute understand the cultural challenges,” he said, “that are going to make progress for women very slow.” 

There are some reasons to be hopeful in Afghanistan, however – and reasons why the country is not necessarily destined to follow the path of Iraq, Dunford said. 

These reasons include, most notably, the fact that both of Afghanistan’s presidential candidates actually want US troops to stay. So, too, do regional powers, with the exception of Iran, he added.

What’s more, Secretary of State John Kerry’s mediating role in Afghanistan may have helped to avert a civil war, Dunford told lawmakers. Instead of creating parallel governments that could have competed with each other – and could have led to a “significant” possibility of civil war – the two leading presidential candidates have agreed to a power-sharing arrangement.

That is vital, because there will be no progress without political reconciliation, Dunford told lawmakers. 

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, a leading hawk in Congress, seconded this sentiment. “If there’s a failure to get this election closed out, no amount of American troops is going to make Afghanistan successful,” he said. “As a matter of fact, if that doesn’t happen, I’ll be the first one to say, ‘Get the hell out of there.’ ”

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