James Mattis, a retired four-star general and perhaps the most famous living U.S. Marine, was sharply critical of the Obama administration’s timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan in statements made to The Army Times today.
The administration’s plan leaves behind a residual force of around 10,000 soldiers after the end of combat operations in late 2014 followed by a full drawdown by the end of 2016. Mattis, a former head of U.S. Central Command, worries that this will give the Taliban a chance to regain control over Afghanistan while communicating a lack of U.S. resolve and commitment in the region.
According to the Army Times, “Mattis … said announcing a lower U.S. troop number and setting a specific withdrawal date ‘sends a message’ to U.S. allies that it is not fully committed to the fight against the Taliban. ‘Why does the U.S. government have to level the playing field for the enemy?'”
“We want to crush the enemy’s hope to win through violence,” Mattis added. “Yet we have now given the enemy hope that if they hang on until our announced withdrawal date they can perhaps come back.”
This isn’t the first time that Mattis has come out against the idea of a publicly announced timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan. In July of 2013, Mattis told the Aspen Security Forum that “[you] don’t ever tell the adversary in advance what you’re not going to do.”
After the end of major combat operations in late 2014, the U.S.’s presence in Afghanistan will likely be confined to a couple of major bases, most likely Bagram Airfield, outside of the Afghan capital of Kabul, and Kandahar, a former Taliban stronghold in the country’s east. Mattis implied that this residual force wasn’t large enough even for a reduced training and Special Operations Forces-centered mission, and said that military planners had wanted to leave a few thousand more troops in the country: “We asked for 13,600 troops several years ago,” he told The Army Times.
Mattis’s criticisms carry a certain authority beyond his accomplished service record: The landmark 2006 update to the Army’s Counterinsurgency Handbook was a project of Mattis and General David Petraeus — later the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Handbook, which emphasised a society-wide rather than narrowly military view of conflict, is widely recognised as one of the driving forces behind the U.S.’s changes in strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mattis helped usher in the modern era of U.S. counter-insurgency — a period that might end with a phased pullout from Afghanistan that the ex-general objects to.
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