Lt. Gen. John F. Campbell (Staff)
Senators stuck mostly to basic questions for Army Gen. John Campbell at his confirmation hearing Thursday to become the next commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
They also warned they might be the last easy questions he faces for a while.
Campbell, 57, is poised to take charge in Afghanistan at a time of political turmoil both there and at home. While Afghan lawmakers fight over the validity of the June runoff election to fill their country’s presidency, American politicians are fretting over how that delay will affect the planned drawdown of U.S. troops from the region — and whether that drawdown was planned properly.
Members of Congress also have voiced concerns that mishandling the waning days of the Afghanistan War will lead to future conflict like what is currently being seen in Iraq, where three years ago U.S. forces left behind a fragile homegrown military force whose ability to secure its country is being increasingly called into question.
Campbell told lawmakers he is encouraged by the progress of Afghan security forces in the last year, praising their efforts to secure the recent elections with intentionally limited support from coalition forces.
But he also acknowledged “gaps” in the Afghan troops’ intelligence resources, logistics set-up, counterterrorism capabilities and discipline.
“We have a few years to work on those gaps,” he said.
President Obama in May outlined plans to drop the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to 9,800 by January and to zero by 2016, ending the 13-year mission there.
Over the next two years, U.S. troops will shift from combat support to training and advising roles, with about 1,000 service members still engaging in some counterterrorism operations.
Conservatives on the Senate Armed Services Committee again criticized that announced timeline, and repeatedly asked Campbell to commit to offering an independent assessment of conditions on the ground as that transition moves ahead.
Several lawmakers referenced the collapse of Iraqi security forces confronted by Syrian-based insurgents as a warning for the future of Afghanistan without U.S. troops.
Campbell deflected those charges with promises that American military plans will be flexible enough to ensure al-Qaida and other terrorist groups don’t re-establish a foothold in Afghanistan.
The ongoing fight over the Afghan presidential election could prove more problematic to the withdrawal timeline. Both candidates have denounced the vote count as rife with errors and fraud.
Pentagon officials have said the new government must sign a pending bilateral security agreement no later than August to allow any U.S. troops to stay past the end of this year.
Campbell said he has no concerns about the Afghanistan political situation, noting that “everything I see is good news” about both candidates’ desire to work with coalition forces in years to come.
He dismissed the runoff controversies as “something they just need to get through” and said he hopes the issues will be settled before the Senate votes on his confirmation.
That vote is expected to come later this month, without significant opposition, before the Senate begins its extended August break.
Thursday’s confirmation hearing also featured questions for Lt. Gen. Joseph Votel, nominated to take over U.S. Special Operations Command, and Adm. William Gortney, nominee to become chief of U.S. Northern Command.
Lawmakers quizzed both on both overseas missions and the current immigration problems at the U.S.-Mexico border, highlighting that as a potential national security concern as well as a humanitarian crisis.