CENTCOM Chief: Conditions Not Right to Pull Out of Afghanistan

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U.S. Central Command Commander Gen. Joseph Votel testifies before the House Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, March 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
U.S. Central Command Commander Gen. Joseph Votel testifies before the House Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, March 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

The top U.S. general in the Middle East is warning against removing troops from Afghanistan too soon or considering the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria defeated after the president called for an end to the wars in the region.

Army Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, reiterated that any decision to leave Afghanistan must be based on the conditions on the ground rather than set timelines. While he's been given no direct order to remove troops from Afghanistan, he said, the time is not right for a full withdrawal.

"The political conditions where we are in the reconciliation right now don't merit that," Votel said during a Thursday House Armed Services Committee.

Votel also said the fight against the Islamic State group, which troops have been battling across Iraq and Syria, is "far from over." While the destruction of the ISIS caliphate in Syria was a "monumental military accomplishment," he said the terror group is likely to make a resurgence.

"We should be clear that what we are seeing now is not the surrender of ISIS as an organization, but a calculated decision to preserve the safety of their families and preservation of their capabilities by ... going to ground and remote areas and waiting for the right time to resurge," Votel warned.

President Donald Trump has been eager to bring troops home from the Middle East. On Feb. 1, he tweeted that after 18 long years of war there, he wanted to see the conflicts end.

"I inherited a total mess in Syria and Afghanistan, the 'Endless Wars' of unlimited spending and death," he said. "... It is now time to start coming home and, after many years, spending our money wisely. Certain people must get smart!"

Trump also told troops in Alaska last week that U.S. and coalition forces took over 100 percent of the ISIS caliphate.

"That means the area of the land," the commander in chief said. "We just have 100 percent."

But Votel described a tough fight ahead to defeat the terror group. Once ISIS resurges, it will very much resemble an insurgency, he said. That's similar to what troops have spent nearly two decades trying to defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"What we will see is we will see low-level attacks -- we will see assassinations, we'll see [improvised-explosive-device] attacks, we'll see ambush-type things as they begin to emerge from this," he said. "... What our focus has to be is working with our partners on the ground as we're doing fairly effectively in Iraq right now."

Votel stressed the importance of advise-and-assist missions with partners such as Iraq, along with strong intelligence capabilities, to win that battle.

In Afghanistan, winning will mean seeing a negotiated settlement between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban and safeguarding U.S. interests, he said. The Middle East can't be used as a safe haven to attack the homeland again, he said.

"That would have to be satisfied as part of any overall agreement here," he said.

While Votel said peace negotiations in Afghanistan have recently moved further ahead than at any point in the last 18 years, they haven't reached a point yet for him to advise withdrawing U.S. forces.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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