WASHINGTON — Afghanistan’s military forces need U.S. assistance to successfully counter the Taliban, the top general for U.S. Special Operations Command told Congress on Thursday, amid debate over whether American forces should remain in the country beyond May 1.
Gen. Richard Clarke also echoed the sentiments of other military leaders, saying it’s clear that the Taliban has not upheld its commitment to reduce violence in Afghanistan and has instead made a deliberate decision to increase attacks. Those attacks have largely been on the Afghans and haven’t targeted the U.S.
President Joe Biden has said that it will be “tough” for the U.S. to meet a May 1 deadline to withdraw troops from Afghanistan that was laid out in a peace agreement between the Trump administration and the Taliban. But if the deadline is extended, Biden said, it wouldn’t be by a “lot longer.”
Biden’s comments, backed by assessments from military commanders about the precarious situation in Afghanistan, are laying the groundwork for a decision about America’s force presence in the country, nearly two decades after the war there began.
“The capabilities that the U.S. provides for the Afghans to be able to combat the Taliban and other threats that reside in Afghanistan are critical to their success,” Clarke said.
He declined, however, to provide any details of possible options he has outlined to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on how he could provide needed counterterrorism troops or capabilities if special operations forces are not physically in Afghanistan.
Instead, Clarke noted that no decision has been made about the withdrawal, adding that “we will always provide options” to deter or defeat al-Qaida, the Islamic State group or other terrorism threats.
Similarly, Christopher Maier, the acting assistant defense secretary for special operations, expressed concerns when asked about another troop withdrawal decision by the Trump administration that led to all U.S. forces being pulled from Somalia.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said he was opposed to that decision and questioned whether it was the right move.
Maier said a review of that decision is underway, adding, “From my perspective, there is probably significant downsides to the pullout from the perspective of cost and effectiveness.”
More broadly, Clarke and Maier said Special Operations Command has taken steps to shift some of its focus to the great power competition against China and Russia.
And Clarke said that he has also worked to reduce the pace of operations for the commando forces, which he said have been overly focused on deployments and mission accomplishments.
After nearly 20 years of persistent counterterror operations in war zones and around the globe, special operations forces have seen spikes in suicides and bad behavior. Clarke, who ordered a review last year to address the problems, said they have cut back deployments by about 20% and have shifted leadership out of overseas headquarters so they can more closely supervise and train their forces.