WASHINGTON — The president's nominee to be the next Pentagon chief says he would consider changing the current plans for withdrawing all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of next year if security conditions worsen.
In written comments to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Ashton Carter responded "yes" when asked if he would consider recommending changes to the current pace and size of the drawdown plan to address security concerns. He also said he is aware of reports that Islamic State militants may try to expand into Afghanistan, and said he will work with coalition partners to ensure that doesn't happen.
Carter's comments were included in his answers to a committee questionnaire that was obtained by The Associated Press. They come as Afghan leaders express concerns about the U.S. troop withdrawal and worry that local forces may not be ready to secure the country on their own.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and chairman of the committee, has repeatedly questioned the wisdom of setting and announcing a hard end date to the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. And military commanders have told Congress that they would have preferred a "more ambiguous" withdrawal schedule that would not tell the enemy exactly when U.S. forces would be gone.
The committee is scheduled to hold a hearing Wednesday to consider Carter's nomination, and while he likely will face some pointed questioning during the session, he is expected to easily get confirmed. The questionnaire provided a vivid preview of some of the more challenging subjects senators will raise, pressing him on U.S. national security strategy in hotspots around the globe.
Carter largely toed the administration line in the 91-page, 328-question document, as he answered queries on Russia, China, North Korea, Yemen and the ongoing military operations in Iraq and Syria. Asked about Iraq, Carter said he would encourage efforts to arm and integrate Sunni tribal forces into the Iraqi military to help fight Islamic State militants who have taken control of large sections of the country.
He reiterated persistent complaints from military and defense leaders about the potential effects of more budget cuts on the armed services. He said U.S. forces can still defeat one regional enemy, battle another and conduct various counterterrorism operations at the same time, but the risks are growing. Any additional budget cuts would require more reductions in the size of the military, he said.
In other comments:
• Carter said that as the U.S. begins to normalize relations with Cuba, there is an opportunity to carefully consider whether to expand defense relations with the island nation.
• He was asked whether women should be subject to a military draft if one was ever implemented. Carter said that since "most military career fields are now open to women, a review of the military selective service act would be prudent." He added, "this is not solely a defense issue, but rather part of a much broader national discussion."
• He said competition between Islamic State militants and al-Qaida for jihadi dominance could increase the threat to the homeland and western interests "as each group increases external plotting efforts in an attempt to bolster their credentials within the global jihadist movement."
• He said the U.S. should expand counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan in the fight against al-Qaida, and said America should try to foster more cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
• He said he is worried that the Pentagon is not providing enough resources to bolster its missions in Latin America. He said that, if confirmed, he would direct his team to look at whether the department can do more to help fight corruption, battle criminal organizations and assist countries in securing under-governed areas.
Known as a policy wonk, Carter worked in the Defense Department under two Democratic presidents. He held the No. 2 job at the Pentagon from October 2011 to December 2013, and prior to that served as the technology and weapons-buying chief. During the Clinton administration, he was the assistant secretary for international security policy.
If confirmed, he would be Obama's fourth defense secretary, replacing the current chief, Chuck Hagel, who resigned under pressure in December but has stayed on until Carter is in place.