FPI Suggested Questions for Hill Hearings on Afghanistan

February 2, 2016

Army General John Campbell, the outgoing commander of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, will testify this week before the House and Senate Armed Services Committees about the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan. These hearings come at a time when the Taliban is rapidly expanding the amount of territory it controls while the Islamic State and al-Qaeda are working to establish safe havens from which they could attack foreign targets.

The Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) believes that the following suggested questions will be helpful for lawmakers and their staffs as they prepare for these important hearings.

The Deteriorating Security Situation

Gen. Campbell, the most recent report from the Pentagon’s Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction says, “in this reporting period, Afghanistan proved even more dangerous than it was a year ago. The Taliban now controls more territory than at any time since 2001.” Citing figures proved by your command, the report said that the insurgents now control 27 districts whereas 88 districts are “at risk”. All together, 28 percent of the districts in Afghanistan are either at risk or under the insurgents’ control.

  • Do you concur with the finding that the Taliban now controls more territory than at any time since 2001?
  • How many districts were controlled by insurgents one year ago? How many were considered “at risk” at that time?
  • What is your best estimate of how many more districts will be ‘at risk’ or under the insurgents’ control 12 months from now?
  • Would the deployment of 5,000-10,000 additional troops substantially reduce the likelihood of the insurgents expanding their sphere of influence?

Lt. Gen. Nicholson, who has been nominated to serve as your successor, testified last week that in 2015, “the Taliban came at the ANSF more intensely than perhaps we anticipated. Because of that, we did not make the advances we projected we thought we would make;” and that “there has been no noticeable slowdown to the fighting season and fighting continues throughout the winter.”

  • Do you expect the Taliban to come at the ANSF just as aggressively this year as they did in 2015?
  • Have intelligence collection efforts improved over the past year so that you can be more confident in your projections of the Taliban’s offensive capabilities?
  • Does the persistence of fighting through the winter rather indicate that the Taliban have permanently enhanced their ability to conduct offensive operations?
  • If the Taliban are stronger while government forces continue to struggle, should we expect the insurgents to gain control of additional territory in 2016?
  • Would the deployment of 5,000-10,000 additional U.S. troops substantially reduce the likelihood of the insurgents expanding their sphere of influence?

Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute testified in December that “given the rise in capability of the Taliban and Haqqani forces and the significant decrease in the overall capability of the partnered coalition and Afghan forces that the survival of the Afghan state is very much in question now.”

  • Gen. Campbell, do you agree that the survival of the Afghan state is now in question?
  • Do you believe it would be in question if the Afghan security forces do not compensate for the weakness they demonstrated in 2015?
  • Last week, Lt. Gen. Nicholson remarked that the Haqqani network represents a “severe threat to the government of Afghanistan?” Do you agree?

Terrorist Safe Havens

Last October, the United States destroyed an al Qaeda facility in Kandahar province that you described as “probably the largest training camp-type facility that we have seen in 14 years of war.”

  • Are there major shortfalls in U.S. and Afghan intelligence if a 30-square mile encampment remained unknown for so long? What steps are being taken to improve intelligence collecting in that regard?
  • You said the training camp was operated by al-Qaeda’s Indian Subcontinent affiliate (AQIS). Can you briefly detail the group’s estimated size and objectives both in regards to the region and further abroad?
  • Could an AQIS facility be used to plan attacks on Europe or the United States?

One year ago, the Islamic State established an affiliate in Afghanistan, the “Khorasan Province” (or ISKP). Since then, Islamic State forces have established control of terrain in Nangarhar province.

  • Can you provide a reliable estimate of the Khorasan affiliate’s manpower in Afghanistan? Is it growing substantially?
  • Can you briefly describe the Khorasan affiliate’s objectives inside Afghanistan and abroad? Do you believe its terrain could provide a safe haven from which attacks on the U.S. and Europe would be planned?
  • Do you believe the Khorasan province will continue to feud with the Taliban, or might their shared antipathy to the Kabul government and the United States lead them to form an alliance?

The Role and Number of American Troops

In December, Stars & Stripes reported, “U.S. troops are increasingly being pulled back into battle to aid overstretched Afghan forces.” Gen. Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the paper, “I still call it a war.”

  • Gen. Campbell, do you agree with Gen. Dunford that the U.S. military remains at war in Afghanistan?
  • Do you agree with Stars & Stripes that U.S. troops are increasingly being pulled back into battle because Afghan forces cannot manage on their own?

In January, retired Army General David Petraeus and Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution wrote in the Washington Post that “At present, U.S. and NATO airpower in Afghanistan is used only to attack validated al-Qaeda targets, to counter specific individuals or groups who have attacked coalition forces previously and to respond directly to attacks on coalition forces. According to leaders on the ground, U.S. and NATO forces are otherwise not allowed to attack Taliban targets.” In other words, the U.S. cannot support any proactive operations against the Taliban.

  • Gen. Petraeus and Mr. O’Hanlon report that only 400 U.S. sorties in 2015 resulted in the release of munitions targeting the Taliban. In comparison, there were 1,100 such sorties in 2014 and 2,500 in earlier years. To the best of your knowledge, are those numbers accurate or at least roughly correct?
  • Petraeus and O’Hanlon observe that the Taliban “has learned that it can mass for attack in many places without fear of NATO airstrikes.”  Can you confirm that the Taliban can often mass its forces without fear of coalition airstrikes, and has used that relative impunity to achieve success on the battlefield?
  • Would you agree with Petraeus and O’Hanlon that the we should “unleash our airpower in support of our Afghan partners in the same way that we support our Iraqi and Syrian partners against extremists,” specifically by supporting proactive operations?
  • In light of General Nicholson’s remark last week that the Haqqani network is the “number one threat to our forces in Afghanistan,” would you also recommend that the President allow the United States to proactively target Haqqani forces?

Three years ago, your predecessor, Marine General John Allen, identified 20,000 troops as the number required to ensure a low risk of failure in Afghanistan. In December, AEI’s Frederick Kagan testified that “There is a tyranny of terrain in Afghanistan. If you want to have bases where you need them to fight the enemy, there is a certain minimum footprint that you need to have….The bottom-line is if you are below about 20,000 troops total, you are going to leave uncovered critical areas and critical units and you’re going to invite the reestablishment of certain kinds of safe havens…. [T]hat is a bottom-end number.”

  • Gen. Campbell, is there a “tyranny of terrain” in Afghanistan? Is it necessary to have 20,000 or more troops in order to have bases where you need them?
  • Does the October discovery of a major al Qaeda base in Kandahar province validate the notion that critical areas are now being left uncovered?

General Campbell, in light of the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, you told USA Today that you want the scheduled drawdown to 5,500 U.S. troops to be postponed for as long as possible, wanting to “keep as much as I could for as long as I could.” You also said “at some point it becomes physics,” meaning that past a certain point, it is physically impossible to complete the withdrawal before the end of the year. 

  • What is the latest point at which the United States can safely draw down to 5,500 troops this year?

The Capabilities of Afghan Security Forces

In November 2014, your deputy commander, Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson, said that the casualties being taken by Afghan forces are “not sustainable” and must be reduced. Instead, according to NATO officials, Afghan casualties increased 28 percent in 2015.

  • In your opinion, how much longer can Afghan security forces suffer such dramatic casualties before the army and police begin to disintegrate?
  • How serious would the consequences be for U.S. national security if the Afghan army and police began to disintegrate?

The Pentagon reported to Congress that the Afghan National Army (ANA) how has 170,000 out of an authorized total of 195,000. The Afghan National Police (ANP) have 146,000 out of an authorized total of 157,000. However, the real numbers may be far lower as the result of “ghost soldiers”, who exist only on paper so that their superiors can collect their salaries.

  • Accounting for ghost soldiers and other irregularities, what is your best estimate of the actual size of the Afghan Army and Police at the moment?
  • Do you concur with the finding of the Associated Press that the problem is worst in violent but strategically valuable provinces such as Helmand?

The Pentagon also reported that approximately one-third of the ANA’s 170,000 soldiers were new recruits in 2015 due to desertions, casualties, and low re-enlistment rates.

  • Can the ANA develop the capabilities necessary to hold back the Taliban if it has to replace one-third of its troops every year? What level of replacement would be sustainable?
  • What steps are necessary to improve retention rates in the ANA?

General Nicholson testified last week that the Afghan security forces still suffer from “four key high-end capability gaps” in the domains of close air support; intelligence; special operations; and Afghan security ministry capacity.

  • What are the most important steps the U.S. and the Afghan government should take to address these gaps?
  • Are these four key gaps likely to persist 12 months from now? How long would it take to remedy them, and create an Afghan security force that can truly operate on its own?

Brig. Gen. Wilson Shoffner, the head of public affairs for the U.S.-NATO mission, said the 215th Corps of the Afghan Army is being “rebuilt” as a result of battlefield failures that resulted from “a combination of incompetence, corruption and ineffectiveness.” Shoffner said the 215th corps commander has been replaced, along with “some brigade commanders and some key corps staff up to full colonel level,” he said.

  • Gen. Campbell, do you believe that the other five corps in the Afghan Army might demonstrate similar weaknesses on the battlefield in the near future?
  • Were you aware of the incompetence and corruption in the 215th corps prior to its demonstrated failure on the battlefield?

In December, David Sedney, who served for four years as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Afghanistan and Pakistan, testified that “The security situation in Afghanistan is much worse than we had planned for and/or that we had prepared the Afghan military to face.”

  • Do you agree with Mr. Sedney that the Afghan security forces were never prepared to handle an insurgency of this magnitude?
  • What capabilities do the Afghan forces need in order to succeed against this caliber of threat? How long will it take to develop these capabilities?
  • What should be done in the meantime to address the current threat?

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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