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February 6, 2016

Gen. Dunford on What’s Different From Iraq to Afghanistan Withdrawal

Dunford, commander of the International Security Assistance Force, testifies during a Senate Armed Services hearing in March on the situation in Afghanistan. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Dunford, commander of the International Security Assistance Force, testifies during a Senate Armed Services hearing in March on the situation in Afghanistan. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

A nomination hearing Thursday for Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, Jr. to take command of the Marine Corps spent most of its time focusing on his current job as commander of NATO troops in Afghanistan. He backed the Afghanistan withdrawal plan as different from what happened in Iraq, where the Obama administration is encountering a lot of second guessing based on the chaos there — but he also gave some fuel to critics of the president’s plan in Afghanistan.

“We knew when we left Iraq there was work remaining to be done,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “In Afghanistan we have a chance to get that right.”

The withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 came as a condition of a Status of Forces Agreement signed in 2008 by then-President George W. Bush that set the 2011 deadline. President Barack Obama did not come to an agreement with the Iraqi government to extend that deadline.

And that points to another difference. “The Afghan people want us to be in Afghanistan in overwhelming numbers,” Dunford said. He said he had spoken to both presidential candidates, and “both presidential candidates also support a presence after 2014.”

Furthermore, the lack of a hard deadline under something like a Status of Forces Agreement — although Obama’s plan calls for almost all troops to be gone by the end of 2016 — gives everyone a chance to make adjustments if needed, he said.

And, lastly, the Afghanistan Security Forces have shown themselves up to the challenge so far, Dunford said; the Iraqi military has been far more ragged under fire. The Afghanistan Security Forces helped secure the election and he said he was confident that they were performing well in fighting this summer, even without as much support from foreign troops, he said.


Under questioning from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., about his preference about the 2017 withdrawal date, Dunford nonetheless acknowledged that “All of us in uniform — including the Afghans — would have preferred it to be a bit more ambiguous.” Republicans have said Obama’s setting of a date for Afghanistan withdrawal is a bad move, since it gives the enemy a target date for when they no longer have to worry about American involvement.

He also said it was unclear whether the current gains of the Afghanistan Security Forces were sustainable in the long-term, or fully ready to deal with the terrorist threat by 2017.

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