U.S. officials appear intent on looking past warnings that now is not the time for troop withdrawals and defense spending cuts.
In March 6 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the commander of U.S. Central Command said he was "delighted" to defend the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, despite the recent Quran-burning incident.
That strategy includes a withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by 2014 and, as announced by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last month, U.S. forces there stepping back from a combat role by mid-2013. In addition, President Barack Obama has announced cuts to defense spending that could total $500 billion or more over the next decade.
While making the case for the cutbacks, Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis told lawmakers he had never seen the region so tumultuous in the 30 years he has served in the military there. He cited Iran as the first threat to regional security, and said al-Qaeda forces "are adapting in the face of U.S. pressure."
He also noted that Syria's military capabilities-including advanced air defenses provided by Russia-would make NATO intervention such as the no-fly zone imposed on Libya difficult, if not impossible.
The U.S. military's challenge, he said, is "how we retain a sustainable presence and operational flexibility in a fiscally constrained environment."
The Obama administration's determination to shrink U.S. defense posture at a time of regional upheaval continues to meet challenges. One less noted in Afghanistan that could prove pivotal: The Pentagon also plans to cut the size of Afghan security forces by more than one-third after 2014. The United States and its allies currently fund Afghanistan's military and police forces, and publicly have based drawdowns of U.S. troops on the buildup of Afghan forces. But quietly U.S. and NATO officers have circulated a new proposal to cut Afghan troops from 352,000 this year to 230,000 by 2014.
Afghan Minister of Defense Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak said the smaller Afghan force "will be a catastrophe." In an interview last month with The Wall Street Journal, Wardak said, "Nobody at this moment, based on any type of analysis, can predict what will be the security situation in 2014. ... Going lower [in Afghan troop numbers] has to be based on realities on the ground. Otherwise it will be a disaster, it will be a catastrophe, putting at risk all that we have accomplished together with so much sacrifice in blood and treasure."
Mattis in his testimony noted that the training of Afghan troops is expected to reach the 352,000 mark next month, but he did not mention the proposed cutback. Such news to Afghan commanders comes just as they also are warning U.S. counterparts that training of senior Afghan officers is running behind schedule. That, some say, has exacerbated the fallout from the Feb. 21 burnings of Qurans at Bagram Air Base.
Military investigators have concluded that five U.S. service members were involved in the incineration of the Qurans, which led to riots and the death of six U.S. military personnel in retaliation. Two officers were killed within the Afghan Interior Ministry, prompting U.S. commander in Afghanistan Gen. John R. Allen to immediately withdraw hundreds of U.S. military advisers from government ministries throughout Kabul. By March 8 many of them were returning to their training posts amid stepped up U.S. security. But no one can deny the gaps in training what should by now be a viable Afghan officer corps ready to sustain the central government once U.S. forces have gone.