A critical diplomatic post took a major step towards being filled when the nominee for U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan appeared at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday.
John Bass, the current U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, faced questions from Senators about the future of Afghanistan, less than a month after President Donald Trump announced a new U.S. strategy in the embattled country.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul has been without an ambassador since December. The slow pace of nominating and confirming a permanent ambassador to Afghanistan has garnered much criticism among members of Congress, who have expressed concern over a lack of diplomatic focus by the Trump administration.
Bass, a career foreign service officer who also served as ambassador to Georgia, made clear the conflict in Afghanistan, which after nearly 16 years has the distinction of being the longest U.S. war, shows no signs of coming to a conclusion.
“I don’t think it’s realistic to expect, whether it is 2 years or 3 years from now that we will have a much smaller military footprint,” Bass said in response to a question about whether he envisions a scenario where U.S. troops will be out of Afghanistan by the end of his potential ambassadorship.
Bass emphasized however, that Afghanistan has made great strides over those 16 years, and credited the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani for making “significant progress in curbing corruption.”
“We have a government that wants our help, increasingly listens to our advice, and is making some progress building a government that can provide security to most Afghans,” according to Bass, adding that the U.S. now has “a bit more to work with now that in the past.”
In his prepared opening remarks, Bass sought to temper the concern that U.S. forces would be present in Afghanistan in perpetuity. There are currently approximately 11,000 American troops in the country, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis recently signed an order to send additional forces, believed to be up to 3,900 more personnel.
“I think it is important to remember and to acknowledge that our approach should not be misunderstood as a desire to occupy or remain in Afghanistan against the will of its people. We respect Afghans’ fierce independence. We don’t seek a permanent military base or bases there, or a presence in Afghanistan that would threaten its neighbors,” Bass stated.
When confronted with how this statement conflated with the Trump administration’s announcement of increased U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan with no set date for departing, Bass noted that as Afghan security forces improve their capabilities—a key component of the new U.S. policy—there would be less need for U.S. forces to remain in the country.
“This is going to be hard and it is complicated, but I think that is our road to a smaller footprint over time, hopefully through a negotiated political settlement, and it is through that settlement that I think we ensure that we don’t have to have a permanent military presence there.”
Bass also pointedly emphasized the important role of Pakistan, as well as other countries in the region, in ensuring Afghanistan is no longer a safe haven for terrorists—particularly from al Qaeda, the Taliban, and increasingly, ISIS.
“We will not succeed if we do not have the support and cooperation of Pakistan’s neighbors, and the wider circumference of significant countries in the wider region who also have an enormous stake in the stability and relative security of Afghanistan,” Bass said, while adding that “everyone wants to see the same result” in the country.
It is unclear when Congress will vote on Bass’ nomination.
Verdi Tzou is a national security web editor at The Cipher Brief.