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House Panel Questions Gen. Campbell About Readiness Of Afghan Force

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Afghanistan's military force is smaller and less ready than had been known. Members of Congress are asking whether the U.S. military tried to hide that fact by keeping numbers about the Afghan force secret. This matters because Afghan forces are now leading the fight against the Taliban with American troops mostly in the background. All this got some attention in Congress this week when the top American commander in Afghanistan was grilled on whether the Afghan military can maintain the gains won in a long war. NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: On Wednesday, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, General John Campbell, assured the House Armed Services Committee the Afghan forces are up to the task.

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GENERAL JOHN CAMPBELL: They're ready, and it's time. In their second fighting season in the lead, the ANSF were challenged and tested, but they held their own against a very determined enemy.

WELNA: But a new report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction suggests Campbell's appraisal may be too upbeat. The report showed Afghanistan's army is shrinking. Oklahoma Republican Jim Bridenstine asked General Campbell about that attrition.

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REPRESENTATIVE JIM BRIDENSTINE: In 2014, the Afghan security forces lost over 20,000 personnel to desertions and deaths. Does that concern you?

CAMPBELL: It hasn't had a severe impact on their readiness. Any desertion, any casualty, of course that would concern me. It concerns our leadership, it concerns the president. But I think it is about having processes in place to bring those people on board to keep them in.

WELNA: That could prove a challenge. Over the past year, the size of Afghanistan's army shrank nearly 9 percent to under 170,000 troops. That's the smallest it's been since 2011. General Campbell had initially blocked releasing those numbers, even though they had been a regular part of the Inspector General's quarterly reports for the past six years.

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CAMPBELL: I said anything that is readiness data for the Afghans needs to be classified. We just can't put that out, for the Afghans' good, and also because we're wholly dependent upon the Afghans now for our own force protection.

WELNA: When the quarterly report came out at the end of January without the Afghan troop numbers, some lawmakers wanted to know why they weren't there. Senator Richard Blumenthal is a Democrat from Connecticut.

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SENATOR RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: Classification of this information seems virtually incomprehensible and perhaps unacceptable.

WELNA: So General Campbell did an about-face - he classified most of the information about Afghanistan's fighting forces that he'd previously made secret. Now that those numbers are public, the problems with those forces are more apparent. Illinois Democrat and Iraq war veteran Tammy Duckworth told Campbell she was concerned.

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REPRESENTATIVE TAMMY DUCKWORTH: The numbers of Afghan military and police forces fluctuate significantly from time - from quarter to quarter by as much as 20,000 or 40,000 personnel, and I'm worried.

WELNA: Campbell acknowledged those numbers have been muddled. He said he'd known since last September that inflated Afghan troop strength numbers since the beginning of last year had not been corrected, though they are now

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CAMPBELL: We have to do a much better job at my headquarters to make sure that we have processes in place, that we can provide the right data at the right time. But we have to have a better procedure to do that. And we're working on that.

WELNA: Overall, Afghanistan's fighting force is about 17 percent smaller than what the Pentagon hoped it would be at this point, which may be why U.S. officials are saying the plan to reduce American forces there to 5,500 by the end of the year may be reconsidered. David Welna, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.