American troops and money will need to be in Afghanistan for years to come in order to prevent the unrelenting spread of terrorism, according to the latest, dour assessment from a top U.S. general.
“Now, more than ever, the United States should not waiver on Afghanistan,” General John Campbell, the outgoing commander of Operation Resolute Support told lawmakers on the House Armed Service Committee Tuesday.
"If we think we can just stop and it's going to go away, or people are not going to continue to try to attack Europe or attack our homeland here, then we're naive. We're kidding ourselves,” Campbell added. “We have to be able to continue to have a long-term commitment.”
Campbell’s warning comes less than a week after his likely successor, Lieutenant General John “Mick” Nicholson, told Senate lawmakers terror groups like Islamic State and al-Qaida continue to see Afghanistan as an attractive sanctuary and warned the United States may need to take a more aggressive approach.
There are about 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan for counterterrorism activities and to train and advise Afghan security forces, with that number expected to drop to about 5,500 by the end of the year. NATO allies are supplying about another 6,000 troops.
Campbell praised U.S. President Barack Obama for scrapping plans to reduce U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan to about 1,000 with a Kabul-centered footprint.
Almost 30 percent jump in casualties
He said that despite steady improvements, Afghan security forces and the Afghan National Army still faced gaps with critical capabilities like air power, as well as lingering problems with military leadership.
"Afghanistan has not achieved an enduring level of security and stability that justifies reduction in our support," Campbell said. “They have not consolidated significant gains of their own nor defeated the insurgency.
"If we do not make deliberate, measured adjustments, 2016 is at risk of being no better and possibly worse than 2015," he added.
U.S. military officials have previously said Afghan forces had mixed results in 2015, doing most of the fighting themselves, but suffering from an almost 30 percent jump in casualties due to growing confrontations with a resurgent Taliban force.
But despite fighting through the winter, U.S. officials say the Taliban was unable to hold onto its gains.
Campbell told lawmakers of the 407 district centers in Afghanistan, only eight were under insurgent control, with 18 under insurgent influence and another 93 “at risk” of falling to insurgents.
The outgoing commander of U.S. forces said the Taliban had suffered heavy casualties partly because of clashes with Afghan forces, internal fracturing and competition from the Islamic State terror group.
“Daesh continues to conduct brutal attacks against civilians and directly competes with the Taliban for resources to establish a foothold in the country,” Campbell said, using the Arabic acronym for the terror group.
For now, that foothold is centered in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar Province, but Campbell said IS militants are increasing recruiting in other parts of the country.
Concerns and doubts
Campbell also warned al-Qaida, the terror group long allied with the Taliban, while “significantly weakened” was “certainly not extinct” and also poses a serious threat, as does the Haqqani network, another terror group.
While expressing concern about the tenuous security situation in Afghanistan, lawmakers also voiced some doubts about the ongoing U.S. presence in Afghanistan.
“Given that we’ve been there for 14 years and we can’t leave yet, how many 4.1 billion times are we going to do this,” Democratic Representative Loretta Sanchez said in reference to the $4.1 billion the United States is spending to build up the Afghan security forces.
Republican committee member Walter Jones was more critical.
“Our policy in Afghanistan, there is no endpoint to it,” Jones said. “It's just going to go on for the next 20 to 30 years."
But Campbell argued now is no time to pull out of Afghanistan, and said the country is a key part in what he called a generational fight to stop the spread of terrorism.
“We’ve got to get united. We’ve got to fight this as a global force,” he told lawmakers. “And Afghanistan wants to be part of that force.”