Coalition forces continue to conduct their training and support missions with Afghan troops despite the lack of a new security agreement, says Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)
The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said the lack of a new security agreement for American troops there doesn’t create additional risk and won’t affect any operations through the end of this summer.
After that, it gets messy.
Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan, told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday that Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s refusal to finalize a long-term military agreement has been concerning but not disruptive so far.
Coalition forces are continuing to conduct their training and support missions with Afghan troops, he said, and preparations are underway for the national elections next month.
Dunford said as long as a new Afghanistan president is in place by August, he is confident a new security agreement will be signed and U.S. forces will continue to build on the progress of the last year. “I’m comfortable with that.”
But, he warned, if a runoff election is needed, or if political unrest delays the transition to a new government, it could threaten both an orderly withdrawal of U.S. troops and the long-term stability of Afghanistan.
“The risk to an orderly withdrawal [of U.S. troops] begins to get high is September, because of the number of tasks that need to be accomplished,” he said. “We still have plenty of flexibility to adjust in July.”
Military leaders have pushed for a force of 8,000 to 12,000 troops to continue training and support missions to remain in Afghanistan past December. But officials have also warned that without a new security agreement, all U.S. forces will exit the country by the end of the year.
Dunford called that latter plan a potentially grave mistake.
“If we leave [Afghanistan] at the end of 2014, the Afghan security forces will begin to deteriorate,” he said. “The only debate is the pace of that deterioration.”
Dunford described al-Qaida in Afghanistan as “in survival mode” but predicted a resurgence if the still-inexperienced Afghan security forces are left without support.
“Transition means finishing the job. ... [Full] withdrawal means abandoning the people of Afghanistan and providing al-Qaida space to rebuild,” he said.
That premise drew support from most members of the committee, who blamed negative media reports and poor messaging from the president for dwindling public support of the mission in Afghanistan.
But Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., questioned plans to extend U.S. troops stay there.
“Our mission was to fight terrorists, not to rebuild that nation,” he said. “Are we going to tell the American people that we have to maintain a presence in perpetuity in Afghanistan, like in Korea?
“If we can’t do the job in 13 years, we’re not going to get the job done.”
Dunford said he does not see the work still to be done in Afghanistan as an enduring mission, but declined to give a timeline for when he would like to see all U.S. forces leave.