WASHINGTON – The deteriorating situation in Iraq is giving Congress pause about President Barack Obama's plan to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2016, with fears that hard-fought gains could be wiped out by a resurgent Taliban.
Senior Obama administration officials insist Afghanistan is not Iraq, with a population far more receptive to a continued U.S. presence and the promise of a new unity government. But the officials could offer no assurances that Afghanistan won't devolve into chaos after Americans leave, as Iraq has.
"There's no guarantee," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told a Senate panel Wednesday. "It is up to the people of Afghanistan to make these decisions, their military, their new leadership that will be coming in as a result of their new government."
The U.S. military mission in Iraq ended in December 2011 after eight years of war that cost hundreds of billions of dollars and more than 4,400 U.S. lives, a conclusion welcomed by a war-weary nation. The Obama administration had proposed keeping a residual U.S. force in Iraq to continue training Iraqis, but Baghdad rejected Washington's demand that its troops be granted immunity for prosecution while in the country.
In the absence of the Americans, the fast-moving Sunni insurgency of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has prevailed over Iraqi security forces, conquering several cities, and is threatening the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described for Congress on Wednesday how some Iraqi security forces abandoned the fight against the ISIL.
"Two divisions and part of two, and one national police organization did in fact throw down their arms and in some cases collude with (ISIL) and in some cases simply desert in northern Iraq," Dempsey said.
Lawmakers fear a replay in Afghanistan after 2016 when U.S. forces leave. Last month, Obama announced that about 10,000 troops would stay in Afghanistan at the end of this year but be fully withdrawn by the end of 2016.
In a private White House meeting Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., pressed Obama about his definitive timetable for drawing down American troops, especially in light of the crisis in Iraq. The president defended his plan as the right approach, according to a congressional aide familiar with the talks who wouldn't discuss it publicly by name because the meeting was private.
On Thursday, McConnell publicly criticized Obama, arguing that the president has decided to withdraw forces without considering the ramifications.
"He seems determined to pull out completely, whether or not the Taliban is in a position to re-establish itself, whether or not al-Qaida senior leadership finds a more permissive environment in the tribal areas of Pakistan, and whether or not al-Qaida has been driven from Afghanistan completely - one of our primary aims in this conflict from the beginning," McConnell said in a speech on the Senate floor.
At two separate hearings on Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats pressed administration officials about whether history would repeat itself and whether Afghan forces could defend the country after the U.S. leaves.
The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., asked whether the timeline "emboldens militants in the country to wait (us) out."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., predicted a reconstituted Taliban will threaten Afghanistan as the ISIL has done in Iraq. "We've seen this movie in Iraq," McCain said.
James Dobbins, the State Department's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, countered that in Iraq "people didn't want us and not a single Iraqi politician was prepared to advocate our staying. In Afghanistan, the people overwhelmingly want us to stay, and every single contender in the presidential election said they would sign the (bilateral security agreement)."
Western powers are counting on a peaceful transition in Kabul, but last weekend's runoff vote has prompted allegations of election fraud. Candidates Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai hope to succeed President Hamid Karzai, who was prevented from seeking a third term.
At the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee hearing, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., wondered what the U.S. had learned from Iraq that could be applied to Afghanistan and whether its forces could defend themselves.
Dempsey said he was concerned about Afghanistan's future and said the U.S. military would continue to work on building a resilient Afghan force.
"But at the end of the day, a security force is only as good as the instrument that wields it, and that's the central government," the general said.
He added that Afghans are "more tenacious fighters than their Iraqi counterparts."
The Afghanistan war has lasted more than a decade, cost billions of dollars and killed more than 2,100 members of the U.S. military. Obama has public sentiment on his side in taking steps to end the conflict, while a number of lawmakers are resistant to keeping U.S. troops in the country beyond 2016.
"I don't think we want to be the permanent occupiers of Afghanistan," Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said in an interview. "At a certain point, with our help, it's up to the Afghan government to earn the support of its people. And if they can't do that, I don't want American troops simply to be there in harm's way with a recalcitrant government."