Obama defends Afghanistan pullout after Iraq

While fears linger that Afghanistan would follow Iraq’s footsteps, Obama defends plan to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan

Published: Updated:

While senior Obama administration officials insist that the situation in Afghanistan is not the same as Iraq’s, Congress is questioning 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.

In the absence of U.S. forces, the fast-moving Sunni insurgency of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has prevailed over Iraq’s army, conquering several cities, and is threatening the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress on Wednesday how some Iraqi security forces abandoned the fight against the ISIS.

“Two divisions and part of two, and one national police organization did in fact throw down their arms and, in some cases collude with and in some cases simply desert in northern Iraq,” the Associated Press quoted Dempsey as saying.

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 Last month, Obama announced that about 10,000 troops would stay in Afghanistan at the end of this year but be fully withdrawn by the end of 2016.

Other officials also could not offer assurances that Afghanistan won’t devolve into chaos after U.S. forces leave, as Iraq has.

“There’s no guarantee,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told a Senate panel on 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 Associated Press quoted Hagel as saying.

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.

Obama defends his plan

In a private White House meeting on Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, 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 requested anonymity.

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.”

Republican Sen. John McCain predicted a reconstituted Taliban will threaten Afghanistan as the ISIS has done in Iraq. “We’ve seen this movie in Iraq,” McCain said.

‘Iraqis didn’t want us’

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, Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin wondered what the U.S. had learned from Iraq that could be applied to Afghanistan and whether its forces could defend themselves.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham expressed concern about a collapse in Afghanistan undercutting a nuclear-armed Pakistan.

‘Tenacious fighters’

Dempsey said that he was concerned about Afghanistan’s future and that 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,” Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff 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.”

Taliban strike NATO trucks

Meanwhile, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said his group was behind an attack that targeted NATO’s trucks.

Afghan officials said three Taliban suicide bombers targeted NATO fuel trucks at the border with Pakistan, setting off a gunbattle with police guards, the Associated Press reported Thursday.

A spokesman for the border police in eastern Nangarhar province, Idris Momand, said the attack took place early on Thursday at the parking lot of the NATO outpost near the Torkham border crossing, a key supply route for the alliance.

Ahmad Zia Abdulzai, the spokesman for the provincial governor, says two of the attackers were killed by police while one blew himself up in the attack.

Abdulzai says 37 NATO fuel trucks were destroyed by explosions set off during the gunbattle.

Most NATO cargo shipments go through the Torkham crossing, toward Pakistan’s port city of Karachi.

(With Associated Press)