Obama's pick to lead U.S. forces in Afghanistan to review drawdown

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama’s pick to lead U.S. forces in Afghanistan said on Thursday he aimed to review a campaign plan that would cut American troop levels by nearly half by the start of next year, as he acknowledged deteriorating security in the country.

Lieutenant General John Nicholson’s Senate confirmation hearing underscored anxiety in Congress about Obama’s withdrawal plan, which has already been slowed to address Afghanistan’s struggle to blunt a still-resilient Taliban insurgency.

The emergence of Islamic State as a threat in Afghanistan has added to U.S. concerns.

Nicholson acknowledged gaps in Afghan military capabilities and said during his Senate confirmation hearing he aimed to complete his review of the situation in Afghanistan within his first 90 days in command, if confirmed by Congress.

He was careful not to disclose any potential recommendations he might make.

Senator John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said cutting U.S. troop levels from 9,800 to 5,500 as planned could undermine efforts to both bolster Afghan forces and combat al Qaeda and Islamic State militants.

“It’s time to immediately halt U.S. troop withdrawals and eliminate any target date for withdrawal,” McCain said.

Nicholson said he agreed with plans by the outgoing commander, General John Campbell, to keep as many troops in Afghanistan for as long as possible before reducing them to 5,500 U.S. troops, as ordered, by Jan. 1, 2017.

But he also said preparations for that drawdown would need to start in the coming months.

A blunt Pentagon report released last month said the security situation in Afghanistan deteriorated in the second half of 2015, with Taliban militants staging more attacks and inflicting far more casualties on Afghan forces.

The grim outlook prompted Obama in October to scale back his drawdown plans, which had previously seen the United States drawing down to an embassy-based presence by 2017. The White House has also recently given the military broad authority to target Islamic State in Afghanistan.

Nicholson said the Taliban came at the Afghan forces “more intensely than perhaps we anticipated.”

“Because of that, we did not make the advances we projected we thought we would make,” he said.

Nicholson listed capability gaps within Afghan forces including in intelligence, air support and the evacuation of wounded forces from the battlefield.

Asked about Nicholson’s remarks, Defense Secretary Ash Carter told reporters he expected Afghan forces to be “much stronger this season.”

Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Sandra Maler