President Barack Obama’s designee to become the next Secretary of Defense told the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this week that he could recommend keeping more U.S. troops in Afghanistan to address security concerns and potentially protect the country from advances by ISIS or the Islamic State.
Last year, the Obama administration pledged to withdraw almost all troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2016, keeping only a small force to protect the embassy in Kabul and assist the Afghans with certain security matters. U.S. forces will also continue to perform counterterrorism operations.
Ashton Carter’s written response to a lengthy committee questionnaire comes just days before he faces a Republican-dominated confirmation committee hearing on Wednesday and at a time when military commanders are raising concerns about the ability of Afghan forces to stand up to new threats.
In prepared testimony before the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, Marine Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, will note that Afghan forces “remain stalemated with the Taliban-led insurgency” and reliant on American “air, intelligence and maintenance support.” He will testify that the forces still “struggle to effectively replace these lost enablers.”
Meanwhile, Islamic State fighters are establishing “a growing international footprint” in countries like Algeria, Egypt and Libya, Stewart will say. In January, Afghan officials confirmed to CBS News that ISIS has begun “recruiting fighters, flying black flags and, according to some sources, even battling Taliban militants” in southern Afghanistan.
Senators are expected to question Carter about the administration’s reliance on Afghan forces and its plan to combat the growing threat from ISIS, using the hearing as an opportunity to criticize Obama’s foreign policy record ahead of the 2016 elections.
Republicans in Congress have called on the Obama administration to establish a no-fly zone in Syria and to deploy U.S. forces to assist Iraqi troops. Lawmakers and military officials have also criticized the administration for setting a firm date for withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, arguing that the deadline could expose the country to greater violence. That view is shared by newly elected Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, who told CBS’s 60 Minutes earlier this month that Obama should “re-examine” his timeline.
On Sunday, Obama warned against exaggerating the threat posed by ISIS and stressed that the United States must adopt “a surgical, precise response to a very specific problem.” Speaking to CNN, the president explained that the group has no “governing strategy” and cannot “actually in a sustained way feed people or educate people or organize a society that would work.”
“What I do insist on is that we maintain a proper perspective and that we do not provide a victory to these terrorist networks by overinflating their importance and suggesting in some fashion that they are an existential threat to the United States or the world order,” he said. “It means that we don’t approach this with a strategy of sending out occupying armies and playing Whac-A-Mole wherever a terrorist group appears because that drains our economic strength and it puts enormous burdens on our military.”