Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford urged lawmakers on Thursday to back off plans to cut funding for Russian-made transport helicopters used by the Afghan military, arguing it would have a “catastrophic” effect on Afghanistan’s ability to conduct counterterrorism operations.
“The reason I use the word catastrophic, which I don’t think is hyperbole, is because the inability of the Afghans to have the operational reach represented by the Mi-17 will seriously deteriorate their ability to take the fight to the enemy,” Dunford said during testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “But the more important reason I use the word catastrophic is their inability to take the fight to the enemy will actually put young Americans in harm’s way in 2015 and beyond.”
“All of us in uniform, including the Afghans, would have preferred that had been a bit more ambiguous.”
Dunford, who commands the war in Afghanistan, has been nominated to serve as the 36th commandant of the Marine Corps, replacing the retiring Gen. James Amos. Although Dunford was in Washington to testify at his confirmation hearing, most questions from lawmakers centered on the 13-year war in Afghanistan, which the general has led since February 2013.
As the U.S. military drawdown, Afghan forces will increasingly need the operational reach provided by the Mi-17 helicopter. Plans call for the Afghans to maintain a fleet of about 80 of these aircraft, 30 of which are to be used by Afghan special forces, Dunford said.
While the Pentagon has a $550 million contract with Rosoboronexport, a Russian supplier of the Mi-17s used by Afghan forces, Russian actions in Ukraine have prompted lawmakers in the House and Senate to consider scaling back that contract as a punitive measure. But without proper funding, the Afghans’ ability to maintain their fleet would be compromised, Dunford said, and “Afghan forces will not be successful in providing security in Afghanistan.”
The Mi-17 has proved popular with the Afghan air force because of its rugged design, ease of maintenance and low operating costs.
By the end of the year, the U.S. will formally end its combat mission in Afghanistan, and U.S. troop levels are set to drop from roughly 30,000 today to 9,800. Most will be involved in training and advisory missions. About 1,000 of the forces will be focused on conducting counterterrorism operations. NATO allies are also expected to contribute an additional 4,000 troops in Afghanistan after 2014, Dunford said.
The general said he believes the Afghan security forces have proved to be effective fighters, though challenges remain, especially in areas such as logistics. On the political side, Dunford also said he was optimistic that disputes over the outcome of the recent Afghan presidential election would soon be resolved and that a bilateral security pact would be reached with the U.S.
Meanwhile, if confirmed as the head of the Marine Corps, Dunford will face new challenges, especially in balancing demands for more modernization while maintaining readiness and the Marine crisis-response capabilities.
“Balancing all those in a fiscally constrained environment,” Dunford said, “is going to be very difficult.”