WASHINGTON — The Pentagon's top civilian and military officials Sunday expressed expectations, even a desire, that U.S. troops would remain in Afghanistan after the NATO mission ends in December 2014, although they emphasized that no decision had been made.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the United States would sustain a strategic partnership with Afghanistan, and cited a decision by NATO heads of state during a summit meeting in President Barack Obama's hometown of Chicago that long-term support for Kabul would include military assistance.
"In Chicago, we also said that we're committing to an enduring presence," Panetta said. "And I believe that the president of the United States is going to do everything possible to implement the Chicago agreements."
During joint appearances on NBC's Meet the Press and CNN's State of the Union, Panetta and Dempsey sought to define and defend an 11-year-old mission in Afghanistan whose objectives have become fuzzy in the minds of many Americans, just as Obama weighs how rapidly to withdraw the remaining troops and considers how many to propose leaving there after 2014.
In advance of a visit to Washington by President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan last month, some White House officials said that leaving no troops behind remained an option — though some viewed the comments as a negotiating tactic. Any U.S. troop presence after the conclusion of the NATO mandate requires agreement between Kabul and Washington.
The Departments of Defense and State sought, but failed to secure, a similar agreement to leave a sizable training and advising force in Iraq after the end of combat there.
"No one has ever suggested zero to me," Dempsey said, referring to the number of postwar troops in Afghanistan, although he stressed that "the decision on numbers hasn't been made yet."
Pressed to define the mission in Afghanistan, Dempsey said it was "to establish a secure and capable Afghanistan that can govern itself and ensure that al-Qaida never again establishes a safe haven in that country." He argued that coalition forces have diminished the Taliban's capabilities. "Violence has gone down," he said. "We're also developing an Afghan army that has increased its operational skill to provide security."