US Commander: Al Qaeda Could See 'Great Victory' in Afghanistan After a U.S. Withdrawal

By Melanie Arter | March 12, 2014 | 2:20 PM EDT

Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

( - Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, top commander in Afghanistan, testified on Capitol Hill Wednesday that if the U.S. pulls out of Afghanistan entirely at the end of the year, al Qaeda would be emboldened and consider it “a huge moral factor,” because it is looking to re-establish “preeminence in the region.”

“I think it would not only be a physical reconstitution, but a huge moral factor for al Qaeda as a movement were we to withdraw from the region in 2015 and allow them to once again establish preeminence in the region and become the vanguard for the al Qaeda movement from the region,” Dunford told the Senate Armed Services Committee at a hearing on military operations in Afghanistan.

Al Qaeda would “view it as a great victory,” Dunford said, and would give the terrorist group “the space within which to conduct operations towards the west once again.”

On Feb. 25, President Barack Obama ordered the full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year but said he would prefer to have a residual military presence in the country.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, however, has refused to sign a bilateral security agreement (BSA) to allow U.S. troops to remain in the region after 2014, because his term in office is coming to an end, and he preferred for his successor to sign the agreement. Afghan elections are scheduled for April, but if there is no clear winner, a run-off election will take place later this year.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) asked Dunford to explain what would happen to the region if U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan by 2015.

“First of all, I think the deterioration of the Afghan forces begins to happen fairly quickly in 2015,” Dunford said.

Almost immediately after the withdrawal is completed in 2015, tactical units would run out of fuel. “Pay systems would not be completely operable,” he said. “Spare parts would not be available for vehicles.

“We’d start to see decreased readiness in the Afghan security force, and obviously their operational reach would be less. We also would not complete work with the Afghan air force, which really is two or three years away,” Dunford added. The U.S. military is “still in the process of fielding the Afghan Air Force.”

“With regard to al Qaeda, again my assessment is with the pressure we put on al Qaeda virtually every day in operations, by our special operations in cooperation with their Afghan partners is what has kept the al Qaeda from reconstituting. We know from intelligence that they have every intent to continue to operate from Afghanistan and Pakistan,” he noted.

“They would view it as a great victory were we to withdraw and were they to then have the space within which to conduct operations towards the west once again,” Dunford said.

Dunford said there’s no question that the troop pullout would be “a risk to western interests including the United States.”

Ayotte noted that all of the Afghan presidential candidates have committed to signing a bilateral security agreement if elected. She was troubled by comments that Karzai has made recently. Among them in January, the Afghan leader accused the U.S. of being the mastermind behind many insurgent-style attacks in the region, the Guardian reported.

If a decision is not made on the bilateral security agreement by September, the military campaign would suffer, Dunford said.

“You have a high risk against an orderly withdrawal, and that’s simply because of how long it takes to get all the equipment out, all the people out, and to transfer all the facilities. We start to run into a situation where there are as many tasks to do as there are days to do those before the 31st of December, so that’s why I characterize that as high-risk subsequent to September,” he said.

“But I think the real challenge with a delay in the BSA and a delay in certainty post-2015 actually starts in Kabul with the leadership, the Afghan people, and the Afghan security forces across the country,” Dunford said.

“I think it also is fair to say that currently the uncertainty in 2015 affects the behavior of regional actors to include Pakistan, and those nations are hedging – not certain what the facts on the ground will be in 2015,” he said.

Dunford also expressed concern about “the willingness and ability of the coalition to maintain cohesion and actually participate.”

“I think it’s very important to point out that the contribution of the coalition has been significant, and I assess that a future mission-- it would be very important to do the future mission also as a coalition,” he said.