WASHINGTON — The U.S. faces at least 60,000 Taliban forces in what has become a military stalemate in Afghanistan, the general nominated to take command on that and other wars told senators Tuesday.
Yet that military stalemate is offset by momentum in diplomatic efforts to end the 17-year war in Afghanistan, and continued military effort is critical to remind the Taliban it is time to talk, Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie said.
“I believe this is a new thing, a new opportunity,” McKenzie said. “I may be wrong.”
McKenzie is nominated to be the new commander for U.S. Central Command. He is currently the director of the Joint Staff. His nomination must be approved by the Senate.
He said the 60,000 estimate of Taliban strength depends “on who is counting.” He estimated the number of localized ISIS fighters in eastern Afghanistan to be in “the thousands” and the number of Al Qaeda to be less.
Central Command oversees the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen as part of its regional responsibilities..
McKenzie told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that the difference in Afghanistan today is that diplomacy is “alive and is being vigorously pursued” by many in the region.
For diplomacy to succeed, Pakistan must get seriously involved, McKenzie said. “Any diplomatic solution will involve Pakistan,” he said. “They have not shown indications over the last few years of being a serious partner in this regard.”
But McKenzie was blunt in saying no one should demand a timeline for a settlement. “I don’t know how long it is going to take,” he said.
He also said that the Afghan military is vastly improved and now bears much of the fight — even as they need to improve still further. “Their losses are not going to be sustainable if we do not solve this problem [of training and force generation],” he said.
“They are doing the fighting. American are still at risk. We are no longer do it the fighting. They are doing it imperfectly but they are doing it. That is a new thing,” McKenzie said.
McKenzie said the new emphasis on China and Russia outlined in the National Defense Strategy means fewer resources for Central Command and a shifting of capabilities.
Nevertheless, McKenzie said the U.S. could still respond to a challenge from Iran to exert muscle in the Strait of Hormuz although it might take longer.
“It’s going to require the command to adopt innovative techniques to deter Iran because that’s the underpinning of everything else that will go on in the theater,” McKenzie told members of the Senate Armed Service Committee. “I am confident we can respond.”
He said Iran is the major threat in the region — and that he has “seen nothing” to suggest Iran is scaling back its nuclear program.
“We should watch very closely that possibly” of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, he said. “If Iran were to become a nuclear power, not only would it threaten the U.S. but destabilize the region and lead the worst of all possible outcomes for us, which would be proliferation across the theater.
“You can only speculate what they might do with those weapons,” he said.
In the campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, McKenzie said the success so far in Iraq shows the merits of a consistent strategy and well-trained local security forces.
“We are seeing the fruits of the military campaign in Iraq,” McKenzie said. “I don’t want to oversell it because ISIS is still active in pockets in Iraq, but Iraqi security forces are generally proving effective at squashing them when they appear.”
While McKenzie noted progress continues slowly against ISIS in Syria, he low-keyed whether ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been killed and why he had not been snared.
“I would just note, as long as you’re concerned about whether you’re going to die in the next hour or so, it’s hard to plot attacks against Detroit.”