The senior U.S. military commander in Afghanistan told Congress on Thursday that training for Afghan forces would be severely constrained if the number of American troops there was cut to 5,500, as President Barack Obama has proposed.
Obama is planning to cut the number of American forces in Afghanistan from the current 9,800 troops to the 5,500 figure by the end of 2016. But Army General John Campbell told the Senate Armed Services Committee that would mean that "very little" additional training of Afghan soldiers would be possible.
Campbell, who is expected to retire soon, said, "I want to keep 9,800 as long as I can before I drop down to 5,500." But he said he was prepared to reduce the U.S. deployment "as I am ordered."
Congressional critics of Obama's military operations against Taliban fighters in Afghanistan say reduced U.S. troop levels there will undermine the lengthy American effort that started shortly after the 2001 al-Qaida terrorist attacks in the U.S. that killed nearly 3,000 people.
Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, who lost the 2008 presidential election to Obama, said a reduced force would not be able to carry out its dual mission of training Afghans and conducting counterterrorism missions.
"This smaller American force will inevitably be forced to shoulder a higher level of risk to themselves, to their mission and to the national security of the United States,'' McCain said.
Initially, Obama said he would cut the U.S. deployment to 5,500 by the end of last year, but as that time neared and insurgent attacks in Afghanistan forced a reassessment, he reversed course and pushed the deadline to the end of 2016.
Obama has named Army Lieutentant General John Nicholson to replace Campbell; confirmation of his appointment is pending in the Senate. Nicholson has promised a further review of U.S. troop levels once his command takes effect.