KABUL, Afghanistan — The top U.S. and coalition commander in Afghanistan stressed Saturday that the signing of a stalled bilateral security agreement between America and Afghanistan was needed to send a clear signal both to the Afghan people and the Taliban that the international community remains committed to the country's future stability even as foreign forces withdraw.
Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, who commands the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force, told the Associated Press it was important to sign the deal, which has been stalled since June by President Hamid Karzai. He did not say if the deal was close to signing, but there have been indications recently that it is nearing that.
Last month, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he would like to see an agreement by October to give NATO enough time to prepare for a post-2014 military presence instead of a total pullout.
"There is no doubt that the bilateral security agreement is going to send a clear message first and foremost to the Afghan people and Afghan security forces and enhance their confidence to deal with the challenges that we will have to deal with collectively in the coming months," Dunford said.
He added that the agreement "will also send a loud and clear signal to regional actors and they will know also that the U.S. and international community is going to remain committed to a stable, peaceful and unified Afghanistan, and I also think the (agreement) will send a message to the Taliban that they can't wait us out."
Afghanistan and the United States have been negotiating the agreement, which would allow the presence of foreign troops beyond the end of 2014. When signed, it would allow a small force of trainers and possibly counterterrorism troops to remain. Although no numbers have been announced yet, it is believed they would be about 9,000 from the United States and 6,000 from its allies.
There are currently about 100,000 troops from 48 countries in Afghanistan, including 66,000 Americans. By February, the American presence will be reduced to 34,000 and the NATO force will be halved. Dunford said withdrawal plans are on track.
If the United States does not sign the security deal, it is unlikely that NATO or any of its allies will keep troops in Afghanistan after 2014.
Many Afghans are fearful that the full withdrawal of foreign forces after 2014 could lead to a repeat of the instability that followed the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation, which led to a civil war and the eventual rise of the Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan for five years until the U.S. invasion.