The top American commander in Afghanistan warned Wednesday the country would deteriorate quickly if the U.S. withdraws completely by the end of this year.
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee in a nearly empty hearing room, Gen. Joseph Dunford said the Taliban would view the withdrawal as a victory, Al Qaeda would be inspired to return, women would suffer, and the Afghan security forces would not be able to complete necessary training.
"A withdrawal in my mind means abandoning the people of Afghanistan, abandoning the endeavor that we've been on for the last decade, and then providing Al Qaeda the space to begin again to plan and conduct operations against the West," Dunford said.
He said Al Qaeda in Afghanistan is currently “fighting for survival,” but that without continued pressure over the next few years, it would "physically reconstitute" while boosting recruitment, fundraising and morale.He warned Al Qaeda in Afghanistan could once again "establish preeminence in the region and become the vanguard for the Al Qaeda movement.”
Dunford was most concerned with leaving before the Afghan security forces are ready to be entirely independent. He said more training needs to be done with the Air Force and Special Operations units.
"If we leave at the end of 2014, the Afghan security forces will begin to deteriorate," Dunford warned. "The security environment will begin to deteriorate, and I think the only debate is the pace of that deterioration."
The Committee's chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said he was sorry to see that a Gallup poll showed that for the first time, a plurality of Americans believe going to Afghanistan was a mistake.
"I do not share that view,” Levin said in his opening statement. "More importantly, neither do the Afghan people."
Levin highlighted advancements in security, education, health, and women's rights.
Republicans on the committee praised Levin for outlining successes in Afghanistan, something many of them say President Obama is unwilling to do.
Just last week, the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., accused the president of being silent on the war in Afghanistan and failing to endorse his own policy.
The lack of a bilateral security agreement, which outgoing President Hamid Karzai refuses to sign, has sidetrackedObama's plan for a longer American presence.
But Dunford said even if the U.S. was able to sign a security pact with Afghanistan that allowed 10,000 troops to stay, there was a risk associated with drawing that force down by the end of Obama’s term in 2017, as some have reported is the intended course.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who supports keeping a residual force in Afghanistan, told Dunford that if the plan is to simply remove them after two years he wouldn’t support keeping them there. McCain called it “a needless risk of American lives.”
Senator Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a senior member of the Armed Service Committee, pointed out that hearings on Afghanistan used to get more attention.
"One observation, the room is almost empty," Graham said. "I remember when all these rows were full with people carrying bags and everybody was hanging on every word about Afghanistan."