Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis on Tuesday unveiled a recommendation on how many U.S. troops should remain in Afghanistan after the 2014 withdrawal. (Staff)
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WASHINGTON — The head of U.S. Central Command has recommended that 13,600 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan after the White House-mandated 2014 withdrawal date for American and NATO troops. This would be almost half of the force that will be in country after 34,000 troops are brought home this fall.
Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis for the first time put a number to the debate roiling the Pentagon and the White House over how many troops might remain behind in Afghanistan to continue the counterterrorism mission and to train and advise the Afghan armed forces. There are currently 68,000 American forces deployed in Afghanistan.
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday along with Special Operations Command (SOCOM) chief Adm. Bill McRaven, Mattis said, "the Afghan campaign is on track," though "it is obviously a combination of success and violence."
Of the 352,000 oft-maligned Afghan troops themselves, Mattis said that "these lads are willing to take it to the enemy," and added that he fully supports the pace of the drawdown this year.
"The pace is what makes it optimal for me to support it fully," he noted. "The pace to not bring American forces down until after this fighting season … I support the pace and I support the number."
Syria and Iran were also major topics at the hearing, with multiple senators pushing the CENTCOM chief on providing American assistance to the rebels fighting to oust the Assad regime. Mattis sounded a skeptical note when asked if he supported arming the Syrian rebels.
"The situation is so complex that I have to get some degree of confidence that the weapons … do not go to the enemy," he said. "We don't want to inadvertently arm people who are basically sworn enemies" of the United States.
At this moment, "I do not" have that level of confidence, he concluded.
The Syrian government's chemical weapons sites are "increasingly vulnerable" as fighting spreads and the government's hold over territory weakens, Mattis said, adding, "our planning is taking this into account to the degree that it can, and I'll just tell you that we have options prepared" to deal with the threat.
Mattis confirmed that Iranian Qods Force personnel are on the ground in Syria fighting alongside government troops, and that the Iranians "continue to bring in foreign fighters." He also noted that if the rebels gain the upper hand, in his view, "the collapse of the Assad regime will be the biggest strategic setback for the Iranian regime in 25 years."