The senior American commander in Afghanistan suggested Tuesday that American forces could remain in the country beyond 2014 despite previous signals from President Obama that the bulk of troops would be withdrawn by then. The commander’s remarks amounted to the most emphatic signal to date that the United States military intended to secure a presence here, possibly for years.
In an interview with The New York Times, the commander, Gen. John R. Allen, avoided talking about troop levels as America begins to wind down its operations in the war on the Taliban insurgency, now 10 years old. But he said negotiations with the government of President Hamid Karzai on a strategic partnership agreement would “almost certainly” include “a discussion with Afghanistan of what a post-2014 force will look like.”
Mr. Karzai had, “in fact, just the other day talked about his desire to have conversations with the U.S. about a post-2014 force,” the general said. “We would probably see some number of advisers, trainers, intelligence specialists here for some period of time beyond 2014.”
Other American officials, including members of the Obama administration, have said 2014 is not a hard deadline for military withdrawal. The United States ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan C. Crocker, said this month that the United States was open to keeping forces here if the Afghanistan government asked for them. But General Allen is the highest-ranking American military official so far to explicitly state that possibility.
President Obama has not excluded the possibility of troops staying after 2014, but the issue as has not yet been part of the public discussion.
General Allen emphasized what he called the need for a long-term military and civilian commitment to the country beyond 2014. His proposal for Afghanistan, if followed, might help avoid the outcome of America’s other war, in Iraq, where the political instability worsened almost immediately after the last American troops departed.
The general also laid out his vision for American and NATO troops for the next few years.
He expects more military trainers and mentors to come into Afghanistan to work with Afghan troops starting in 2012, he said. Still more would arrive in 2013 as the Afghan security forces were asked to do more. Currently, most Afghan units are partners with NATO forces, and in a number of places the NATO troops still have a dominant role. The idea is that the gradual departure of NATO forces would be cushioned by some Western military support for the Afghan forces in the field.
At the same time, American Special Operations forces, who are heavily involved in many intelligence-driven raids as well as larger and often more dangerous operations, would remain at current levels or increase even as conventional troops were reduced, General Allen said.
The exception may be in eastern Afghanistan, where, General Allen said, “a pretty virulent insurgency” remains a problem and where the level of conventional troops will not be drawn down, because insurgent fighters taking refuge in neighboring Pakistan can quickly deploy across the border.
He emphasized, as other American officials have done, that Afghan forces would play a much larger role in the coming years and signaled that much training was still needed. “The indigenous forces must be the defeat mechanism of the enemy’s insurgency,” General Allen said.
He said he had instructed subordinates to push the Afghan forces and “get them used to being in combat, doing the planning necessary, the execution of missions, the recovery back, refitting after operations and going back out again.”
His comments were a reminder that despite the American public’s exhaustion with the war and resentment of its cost, from a military standpoint the effort will require at least three more years. Whether Congress will be willing to commit the tens of billions of dollars needed is far less clear.
General Allen said that if other countries and foreign donors maintained a presence in Afghanistan, as they say they will, the insurgency’s hope of free rein after 2014 would be undercut, which could erode its credibility with followers.
“So if you are the insurgency and you had to rely on popular local support, or if you are the insurgency and part of the foundational dimension of your doctrine has been — I am just being a little facetious here — that on 1 January ’15, it is going to be the Afghan government against the insurgency, that doctrine is now at risk,” he said.
Whether foreign countries will fulfill their pledges to continue to support Afghanistan is not clear. Privately, representatives from a number of foreign countries and organizations have raised questions about their longevity in Afghanistan, particularly those in Europe, where economic travails have weakened the appetite for financial commitments in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
General Allen insisted that there seemed to be an opening now to weaken the insurgency, and that some of its members were known to be questioning its potency.
“In 2011, the campaign didn’t go well for them, and you can hear that chatter in the insurgent leadership,” he said, referring to conversations overheard through electronic eavesdropping. He said the eavesdropping had revealed particular concern among insurgents that they were losing popular support in southern Afghanistan, which was once a base of their strength.
The portrait of the insurgency drawn by General Allen was considerably complex, spanning two countries — Afghanistan and Pakistan — and composed of different groups. He underscored that while safe havens in Pakistan were important to the insurgency’s survival, it also continued to draw sustenance from local Afghans, suggesting that the government had not yet won people over.
General Allen also was cautious in talking about making any progress. He appeared to be mindful that insurgent combatants in the Afghan war had proved tenacious.
The future role of Pakistan is not yet clear. For now, General Allen said, he is focused on repairing the damage done to American-Pakistani relations after a NATO air attack struck two Pakistani border posts last month, killing 25 soldiers. Since then, the Pakistan-Afghanistan border has been closed to NATO trucks. The relationship, already deeply troubled by the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani safe house in May, has worsened.
“Afghanistan is going to be here a long time, and what’s critical is that Afghanistan’s relationship with its neighbors are, to the maximum extent they can be, constructive and operationally useful,” General Allen said.