The next commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan is prepared to testify that he wants to see a robust U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan after the end of 2014, as U.S. and Afghan negotiators began formal work on that troop presence Thursday in Kabul.
Gen. Joe Dunford will be the sole nominee appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee this morning. President Barack Obama has chosen Dunford to succeed Gen. John Allen to lead the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. Allen, who was nominated to be the next Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), will not testify today because he is under investigation for engaging in a potentially inappropriate e-mail relationship with Tampa socialite (and "honorary consul" of South Korea) Jill Kelley.
According to his written answers to questions posed in advance by senators, obtained by The Cable, Dunford is ready to tell Congress that he supports U.S. troops staying in Afghanistan for a host of missions in 2015 and beyond, which matches the Obama administration's plans, despite some high-level administration statements to the contrary.
"In my view our overall objective in Afghanistan after 2014 will be to sustain our hard-won security gains after 2014 so that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists," Dunford wrote to the senators. "To accomplish this objective, the primary missions of the U.S. military in Afghanistan should be to (1) train, advise, and assist the ANSF; (2) provide support to civilian agencies, and (3) conduct counter-terrorism operations. This mission set will include force protection for our brave young men and women and, as available, the provision of in extremis support for our Afghan forces."
During his debate with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), Vice President Joe Biden said that U.S. forces would leave Afghanistan at the end of 2014.
"[Ryan] and the governor say it's based on conditions, which means ‘it depends.' It does not depend for us. It is the responsibility of the Afghans to take care of their own security," Biden said. "We are leaving in 2014. Period."
Only days later, State Department officials explained that the U.S. and Afghan governments were preparing to start negotiations on a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) that would establish the size and role of the U.S. troop mission in 2015. The BSA is a follow-up agreement based on the Strategic Partnership Agreement Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed in May, which promised an ongoing U.S. commitment to Afghanistan through 2024.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced Oct. 3 that James Warlick, the deputy to Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman, will be the lead U.S. negotiator, while Karzai's Ambassador to Washington Eklil Hakimi leads the negotiations for the Afghan side. Those negotiations began Thursday must be completed within one year.
"The Strategic Partnership Agreement negotiated last spring included the provisions for: continued U.S. access to, and use of, Afghan facilities for the purposes of countering terrorism; continuing to train the Afghan National Security Forces; and other mutually agreed activities to advance shared security interests," Dunford wrote to the senators. "The BSA should provide a foundation for enduring defense cooperation between our two countries. The key issues that need to be addressed in the conclusion of the BSA should include the nature and scope of the future presence and operational authorities of U.S. forces in Afghanistan; access to and use of Afghan facilities by U.S. forces beyond 2014; and, securing adequate status protections for U.S. Department of Defense military and civilian personnel in Afghanistan."
Dunford also wrote that he believes that the surge of U.S. forces to Afghanistan was a success and that the withdrawal of those surge forces by Obama this year was appropriate. His overall take on the Afghanistan war is that the trend lines are positive and that the insurgency is weakened.
"I support the President's decision and the reasoning behind that decision to recover 33,000 U.S. surge forces by October 2012. The purpose of the surge was to reverse the Taliban's momentum and increase the size and capability of the ANSF. The surge accomplished these objectives and created the conditions to initiate the process of Transition," he wrote.
"Although the insurgency remains resilient and determined, Coalition and ANSF operations have degraded insurgent capabilities and freedom of movement in much of the country. The insurgency failed to meet its established goals for the 2012 fighting season and enemy initiated attacks have largely been driven out of key population centers, a central aim of the Campaign. Additionally, security conditions remain relatively stable in areas that have transitioned and, on average, show a decrease in violence."
Dunford wrote that he also supports the current NATO-approved plan to shift over lead responsibility for all of Afghanistan's territories to the Afghan National Security Forces by mid-2013, at which point international forces will shift to a role of training, assisting, and advising the Afghans. That interim milestone was set at the Lisbon summit of 2010 as followed up in the NATO Chicago summit earlier this year.
But he also believes that until the end of 2014, the Afghan security forces will not be able to operate completely on their own and will need American "enablers" to help them fly planes and helicopters, do engineering, counter roadside bombs, and to help them with intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, known as ISR.
The pace at which U.S. forces withdraw between now and the end of 2014 should be determined by the conditions on the ground and several other factors, according to Dunford.
"I agree that there will be further troop reductions through 2014 but the pace of withdrawal over the next 25 months will depend on several variables, including progress of the campaign, the state of the insurgency, and the readiness of the ANSF to assume full security leadership and responsibility to the Afghan government by the end of 2014," he wrote.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.