Joint Chiefs Chairman Dempsey: Troops Needed in Afghanistan

Military faced with “perpetual uncertainty” from Washington, Dempsey says.

General Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, addresses The Wall Street Journal CEO Council, Nov. 18, 2013 at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, D.C.
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The U.S. military and its allies should leave enough troops in Afghanistan to protect financial commitments made to the country, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey told some of the nation’s top CEOs Monday.

[READ: 4 Lessons the Afghanistan Drawdown Could Learn From Iraq]

After 2014, Afghanistan can live without “a ubiquitous presence of U.S. military forces” in the country but “they can’t live without any” Dempsey said during the Wall Street Journal CEO Council conference in Washington, D.C.  The right question to ask when considering how many troops are needed is to determine how many are needed to ensure the safe spending of the billions of dollars of international donations to its economy and military, he explained.

“If that money dries up then they can’t survive,” Dempsey said.

As Iraq and Afghanistan work to form stable nations “the book has not yet been written,” Dempsey said, but he acknowledged there was “a failure of leadership” in the planning leading up to the wars in those countries.

“At some level I think we have to look back and acknowledge what we didn’t know and maybe should have before we took the precise actions we took,” Dempsey said.

Addressing the shifting governments in the Middle East following the 2011 Arab Spring protests, Dempsey predicted “it will take a decade or more” for stable, reliable democracies to grow from former dictatorships. Dempsey also asserted the U.S. has “a deep obligation to Israel” in the face of Iran’s ambitions to gain nuclear capabilities. Yet with the unstable power structure in Egypt and Syria, Dempsey also said Israel faces fewer threats from rival Arab nations, which could give Israel greater power to act independently in the region.

“Israel has a strategic opportunity and they are beginning to think for themselves about how to take advantage of it,” Dempsey said.

[ALSO: Is Obama's Drawdown Threat in Afghanistan Realistic?]

On the subject of China as a possible future threat, Dempsey said there was a chance for good diplomacy with that country and that military competition “doesn’t have to be confrontational.”

“The Chinese have a different view of time than anyone else,” Dempsey said about China’s potential for patient diplomacy. “I worry more about a China that falters economically than I do about them building another aircraft carrier.”

China is also taking steps to “influence” North Korea from gaining nuclear weapons, which Dempsey said was the greater threat from Asia.

“I worry more about a provocation with [North Korea] that escalates than anything else,” Dempsey said.

The military has changed rapidly from 2003, Dempsey said, giving an example that orders do not strictly come from the top down and the lower ranks are more involved. The military is working to “embrace change” as forces return home from wars, but political dysfunction in Washington could complicate that transition, Dempsey said. The combination of forced cuts to military spending sequestration and the recent shutdown of the government over Obamacare create uncertainty for those serving the country, he said.

“We do a considerable disservice to those young men and women who serve if we live in perpetual uncertainty,” Dempsey said. ““We are living in a bit of what I would describe as perpetual uncertainty.”

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