Ashton Carter, President Obama’s nominee to head the Department of Defense, will tell the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing Wednesday morning that he is open to committing more US. troops to Afghanistan if conditions “degrade” in 2016.
Carter gave his shortest answer to over 300 prepared questions from the committee when asked about more troops in Afghanistan:
Q: If security conditions on the ground in Afghanistan degrade in 2016, would you consider recommending to the President revisions to the size and pace of the drawdown plan announced by the President in order to adequately address those security conditions?
The ultimate decision on recommitting troops will be made by President Obama, but it’s notable Carter is open, without qualification, to pushing for a broader war in Afghanistan.
The critical context here is the slow re-engagement in Afghanistan being undertaken by the Obama administration, without much public or congressional scrutiny. There is a pleasant fiction in Washington that “our combat mission in Afghanistan is over,” as Obama claimed in his recent State of the Union address, but that ignores several important facts:
The administration signed a bilateral security agreement with the Afghan government that permits US troops until at least 2024, and does not prohibit them from combat operations.
In November, The New York Times reported that “President Obama decided in recent weeks to authorize a more expansive mission for the military in Afghanistan in 2015 than originally planned, a move that ensures American troops will have a direct role in fighting in the war-ravaged country for at least another year.” This attracted very little media attention, and likewise from Congress.
In his final weeks as Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel committed an additional 1,000 US troops to Afghanistan for the coming year.
When details of the security agreement were leaked last year, a small bipartisan group of senators repeatedly pushed measures to have Congress vote on extending the war before Obama acted. (“Automatic renewal is fine for Netflix and gym memberships. But it isn’t the right approach when it comes to war,” Senator Jeff Merkley said at the time.) But then-Majority Leader Harry Reid never scheduled a vote.
The Carter hearings are another chance for Congress to weigh in, however, and find out why the administration is extending the nation’s longest war, for how long and with what specific goals in mind.