The Cable

Next Afghanistan commander supports troops there past 2014

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.

THIERRY CHARLIER/AFP/GettyImages

The Cable

State Department sides with Israel in new Hamas war

The State Department on Wednesday condemned Hamas for firing rockets into Israel and said the U.S. government supports Israel's right to retaliate, as Israel did today by killing Hamas leader Ahmed Jabari.

"We strongly condemn the barrage of rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel, and we regret the death and injury of innocent Israeli and Palestinian civilians caused by the ensuing violence," State Department Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement. "There is no justification for the violence that Hamas and other terrorist organizations are employing against the people of Israel. We call on those responsible to stop these cowardly acts immediately. We support Israel's right to defend itself, and we encourage Israel to continue to take every effort to avoid civilian casualties." 

Toner placed the blame for the new violence squarely on Hamas for initiating a campaign in recent weeks that has included firing hundreds of rockets into Israeli territory.

"Hamas claims to have the best interests of the Palestinian people at heart, yet it continues to engage in violence that is counterproductive to the Palestinian cause.  Attacking Israel on a near daily basis does nothing to help Palestinians in Gaza or to move the Palestinian people any closer to achieving self determination," Toner said.

The Israeli embassy in Washington said that in the last week alone, Hamas launched 150 rockets at Israel's southern region, prompting the IDF to respond with targeted strikes aimed at those responsible, as well as at Hamas's military infrastructure.

"The IDF seriously impacted Hamas's long range missile capabilities and underground weapons storage facilities. Most of the Hamas rockets that have been fired at our civilians in the past have had a range of up to 25 miles. Today, we have been targeting the Fajr-5, which has a range of nearly 40 miles, putting three million Israelis within terrorist missile range," the embassy said in a statement. "The IAF has been surgical and restrained in its response to the Hamas missile escalations, and has not targeted the long-range missiles stored in mosques, schools, and hospitals."

"Israel has the right and duty to defend itself from terrorist attacks designed to kill thousands of its citizens," Ambassador Michael Oren said in a statement. "We are sending an unequivocal message that our citizens will not be hostage to terrorist missile fire and cross-border attacks. The scope of the IDF's defensive operation depends on Hamas and whether it takes the decision to cease firing missiles on our neighborhoods and homes."

In a phone briefing with reporters Wednesday, IDF Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich would not comment on reports that IDF battalions were either surrounding Gaza or had already entered Gaza, but he said that a ground incursion is a possibility.

"IDF General Staff is currently assessing the progress of the operation and according to its findings, will decide how to continue. All options are on the table, including a ground operation," he said.

The IDF distributed a stunning video on YouTube of the pinpoint airstrike that killed Jabari in his car Wednesday, and the IDF blog has been posting videos and photos all day of the escalating violence in Gaza. One poster the IDF created shows a picture of Jabari with a stamp over it that reads "Eliminated."

The war has spilled over into Twitter, where @IDFspokesperson and @alqassambrigade, the Twitter feeds for the IDF and the Hamas militants, respectively, have been trading accusations and threats.

"We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead," the IDF tweeted.

"Our blessed hands will reach your leaders and soldiers wherever they are (You Opened Hell Gates on Yourselves)," Al Qassam tweeted in response.

MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images