Most emphatic signal to date to secure a presence

The senior U.S. commander in Afghanistan has suggested U.S. forces could remain in the country beyond 2014 despite President Barack Obama's pledge to withdraw them by then.

The commander's remarks amounted to the most emphatic signal to date that the U.S. military intended to secure a presence here, possibly for years.

In an interview with The New York Times, General John R. Allen, avoided talking about troop levels as the United States begins to wind down its operations in the war on the Taliban militancy, 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,” said General Allen. “We would probably see some number of advisers, trainers, intelligence specialists here for some period of time beyond 2014.”

Other U.S. officials, including members of the Obama administration, have said 2014 is not a hard deadline for military withdrawal. The U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan C. Crocker, said this month the U.S. was open to keeping armed forces here if the Afghanistan government asked for them. But Gen. Allen is the highest-ranking U.S. military official so far to explicitly state that possibility. General Allen emphasised 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 the United States' other war, in Iraq, where the political instability worsened almost immediately after the last U.S. troops departed.

The General also laid out his vision for U.S. 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.

Partners

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.

He emphasised, as other U.S. officials have done, that Afghan forces would play a much larger role in the coming years and signalled that much training was still needed. 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.

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.

He also was cautious in talking about making any progress.

The future role of Pakistan is not yet clear. For now, the General said he is focused on repairing the damage done to 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 troubled by the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May in Pakistan, has worsened. “Afghanistan is going to be here a long time, and what's critical is that Afghanistan's relationship with its neighbours are, to the maximum extent they can be, constructive and operationally useful,” Gen. Allen said. — New York Times News Service

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