President Obama’s nominee to lead American military forces in Afghanistan has a sobering message for lawmakers on Capitol Hill: Security forces there are not yet ready to stand on their own. This tough assessment comes after more than a decade of U.S. efforts to train and equip the Afghan Army and police -- at a cost of roughly $65 billion.
“We have years to go” before Afghanistan’s forces can successfully execute many kinds of missions, including air support, intelligence gathering and special operations, Army Lt. Gen. John “Mick” Nicholson told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday.
The cost of the U.S. effort since 2001 was put forward late last year by Gen. John Campbell, who Nicholson hopes to replace, and the price tag promises to keep rising.
Nicholson said Washington is spending about $3.5 billion annually on the war effort in Afghanistan. That’s in addition to $1 billion from other countries and about $500 million from Kabul itself, “with an objective of course, of that increasing over time.”
The three-star general agreed with panel chair John McCain (R-AZ) that security conditions in Afghanistan are deteriorating despite the presence of about 9,800 U.S. troops in the country.
President Obama last year withdrew his plan to reduce troop levels to about 1,000 by the end of 2016, and instead now plans to keep 5,500 soldiers there at least through the end of this year.
However, Nicholson said if confirmed he would conduct his own review troop levels and make a fresh recommendation to the president within his first 90 days on the job. He could suggest that Obama maintain the current level of 9,800 troops until January 2017 and pass the decision to the next administration.
"This is Afghanistan," he told the committee. "There will always be some level of violence in Afghanistan."
The idea of abandoning Obama’s timetable altogether garnered bipartisan support, as senators worried about Afghanistan becoming a haven for terrorist groups.
Meanwhile, a new audit released Thursday morning by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) found that American forces were unable to achieve the self-imposed goal of making the Afghan National Army’s National Engineer Brigade (NEB) – envisioned as the country’s natural disaster emergency response unit – “partially capable” by the end of 2014.
The Defense Department spent at least $29 million in engineering equipment and vehicles for the brigade, including bulldozers, tractors and cranes, the audit shows.
Last year the Pentagon noted that the brigade was still missing much of its required equipment and a defense official told told SIGAR that the Afghan Central Supply Depot, which is managed by the national army, couldn’t account for all of the NEB’s equipment, according to SIGAR.