By Mike Mount
Reducing the number of Afghan security forces could lead to an increase in Taliban violence inside that country as U.S. forces prepare to leave by the end of 2014, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin said Thursday.
Austin was testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee during a hearing to confirm him as the next top U.S. commander to oversee military operations in the Middle East. Austin said keeping a larger Afghan force would allow the Afghan government to mature under a bigger security umbrella.
Currently, the U.S.-led NATO operation has plans to reduce the number of Afghan forces from about 352,000 to around 230,000 after U.S. troops leave in 2014.
Afghan security forces were beefed up to improve security in tandem with the surge of U.S. troops in 2009. The larger number of Afghan troops would be too expensive to maintain and would eventually have to be reduced as security improved around the country, according to the NATO plan.
"A larger Afghan force would help to hedge against any future Taliban mischief, and you could reasonably expect that an enemy that has been that determined, that agile, that very soon after we transition will begin to test the Afghan security forces," Austin told the Senate panel Thursday.
Austin, who did not participate in the Obama administration's recent decision to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan by 34,000 within the next year, refused to give his opinion on whether the plan was a good idea when lawmakers asked.
In what has become a typical show with recent Obama nominees vetted by the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, offered some political theater as he asked Austin his opinion on the reduction of American troops in Afghanistan.
Austin was cut off mid-sentence by McCain when he said he would defer to the current commander's assessment. After sarcastically asking Austin the question again, McCain turned to Gen. David Rodriguez, who was also at the hearing as the nominee to be the next commander of U.S. military operations in Africa, what he thought of the Afghan plan because he used to be the commander in Afghanistan.
Rodriguez also refused to answer, saying he had left the command some 18 months ago and did not have a current assessment of the country.
Exasperated, McCain let out a giant sigh in what appeared to be disbelief that he could not get an answer.
As questions turned to the threats in Africa, Rodriguez was peppered from both sides of the aisle on his plans to ensure an improved military response to a crisis on the continent. The ranking member of the committee, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, asked Rodriguez how he planned to get U.S. forces on site in the event the military is needed.
Rodriquez said there would need to be good coordination between U.S. agencies, and they must understand security warnings in the region to best position troops to respond well.
"As you know, because of the time and distance and the basing challenges we have, that's going to continue to be a challenge," Rodriguez said of the distance between potential hot spots in Africa and the closest forces, which are in Europe or in Djibouti in eastern Africa. "The challenges across the depth and breadth of Africa with the resource constraints we are all living under, we are going to have to make great assessments of where we are going to have to accept risk and to make sure everybody knows and understands that."
One of the problems identified after the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was the lack of U.S. military assets available to reach the region quickly. U.S. troops first arrived in Libya hours after the attack ended.
Rodriguez was asked to identify the threats facing his potential new command.
"A major challenge is effectively countering violent extremist organizations, especially the growth of Mali as an al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb safe haven, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and Al-Shabaab in Somalia," Rodriguez told the Committee. "Each present a threat to western interests in Africa," he said, and poses "the major threats to stability, militarily."
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is believed to be the extremist group responsible for recently attacking an oil installation in eastern Algeria and taking hostages, including Americans and other westerners.
Boko Haram is a growing Nigeria-based Islamist group that according to some counterterrorism officials has informal links with AQIM.
Al-Shabaab, which tightened its ties to the al Qaeda terror network, is a militant Islamist group that controls much of southern Somalia. It has waged an insurgency against a weak federal government there since 2007.