WASHINGTON – As the U.S. looks to reduce American and Afghan forces in Afghanistan after 2014, Congress members are making comparisons to Iraq and predicting a sharp decline in troops will quickly lead to increased violence and instability.
At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Thursday, lawmakers pressed the Army general expected to become the top U.S. commander in the Middle East for his assessment of the reduced force.
Army Gen. Lloyd Austin — who oversaw the final U.S. drawdown in Iraq — agreed that plans to sharply decrease the number of Afghan security forces after 2014 could open the door to more Taliban violence. And he said that keeping a larger Afghan force would give the Afghanistan government time to mature and reassure allies of America's commitment to the region.
Under the agreement reached at the NATO summit in Chicago last year, allies would fund an Afghan force of 230,000 after 2014, down from the planned peak of 352,000. It would cost the allies about $4.1 billion annually.
Austin's presence at the hearing, which was convened to consider his nomination to head U.S. Central Command, gave senators the chance to grill him on how many troops he had recommended to remain in Iraq after combat forces were removed. Senators said he recommended between 15,000 and 18,000.
The Obama administration was considering leaving as few as 3,500 after the end of combat operations, but ultimately all were withdrawn because the U.S. could not reach an agreement with the Iraq government on legal protections for American troops.
Austin acknowledged that he had recommended a higher number than the 3,500, but declined to say publicly what it was. He agreed that ongoing violence in Iraq is troubling and that the situation there may not be getting better. He said that if the U.S. military had been able to continue to advise and assist the Iraqi security forces, it would have helped them improve.
Austin declined, however, to give his assessment of the Obama administration's decision to pull 34,000 U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by next year. He said he has not been part of the deliberations but would look into it if he gets the job.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said she's worried that the U.S. will not leave a large enough force in Afghanistan after 2014 to protect the U.S. troops that are there.
The Obama administration has not said how many U.S. troops will remain after 2014, largely because the number depends on ongoing negotiations with the Afghan government. Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said U.S. commanders in Afghanistan insist that the Afghan security forces are improving and steadily taking the lead on more operations, thus enabling America to reduce its presence there.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said if the Obama administration does not leave at least 9,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014 he will not support continued funding for the war operation.