Afghan command nominee vague on troop withdrawal timetable

Thu Nov 15, 2012 6:45pm EST
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By David Alexander

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The general chosen to lead U.S. forces in Afghanistan through the critical transition to Afghan security control in 2014 declined to speculate on Thursday on how quickly American troops would be withdrawn from the country.

Pressed by lawmakers at his confirmation hearing on whether he would support keeping troop levels at about 68,000 for the next two years to reassure Afghans and U.S. allies, Marine General Joseph Dunford said he wanted to assess the military capabilities that would be needed through 2014 before making that judgment.

Dunford, who earned the nickname "Fighting Joe" during the 2003 Iraq invasion and currently serves as assistant commandant of the Marines, acknowledged under questioning by Senator John McCain that he had not been included in ongoing discussions about troop levels in Afghanistan.

"That's interesting to me," McCain replied. "The guy that's going to take over the command has not even been included in those conversations. Do you feel prepared to assume these responsibilities?"

Dunford said he did. McCain responded that he had spoken to commanders at all levels in Afghanistan and they agreed that current forces needed to remain in place through 2014 because a steady withdrawal would keep them from accomplishing many of their missions.

"If we can't accomplish the mission, I'm not sure why we should stay," McCain said. "And I think that's something a lot of us have to wrestle with."

Defense officials said later it was not unusual that Dunford was not involved in discussions about troop levels in Afghanistan. The typical practice is for a nominee to avoid direct contact with future colleagues about the position until the Senate has confirmed the nomination.

General John Allen, the current commander of international forces in Afghanistan, and the Obama administration have been in talks about troop levels for 2013 as well as the period after 2014, when Afghan forces take full security responsibility for the country.   Continued...