By Michael Hughes
An unspecified number of U.S. counterterrorism forces will remain in Afghanistan after 2014 to prevent Al Qaeda from establishing sanctuaries, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters at a Pentagon news conference on Thursday.
According to Voice of America, Panetta said the fundamental mission was to ensure Al Qaeda never again finds a safe haven within Afghanistan from which it could attack the United States or any other country. “The goal here is an enduring presence," Panetta added. The U.S. also wants to continue training Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) while ensuring Afghanistan can govern itself.
Although Al Qaeda reportedly has only about 100 fighters left in the region, Panetta claimed the global jihadist organization still poses a threat to U.S. interests, based on recent intelligence reports. U.S. military officials believe Al Qaeda sees the mountainous terrain of northeastern Afghanistan as ideal for setting up safe havens, especially the provinces of Kunar and Nuristan.
Panetta highlighting northeastern Afghanistan as a key trouble spot is interesting considering Jeffrey Dressler, an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, recently testified before a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee that the most lethal group in Afghanistan, the Haqqani Network, operates primarily in the southeastern part of the country, including the provinces of Khost, Paktia and Paktika.
In addition, the Haqqanis, whose main support base is located across the border in Pakistan’s North Waziristan province, are also considered hpw the Afghan Taliban faction most closely intertwined with Al Qaeda. Dressler also believes that the Haqqani Network will likely provide for a large-scale reconstitution of Al Qaeda within Afghanistan after coalition forces leave.
Last week Panetta said these plans send a powerful message to Al Qaeda and the Taliban: “We are not going anywhere; our commitment to Afghanistan is long term, and you cannot wait us out.”
The U.S. has not yet announced how many troops will remain in Afghanistan beyond December of 2014, the target date for the general withdrawal of coalition forces, but Defense officials claim this decision will be made in coming weeks.
Earlier this week unnamed sources told CNN the U.S. might keep roughly 10,000 troops in Afghanistan post-2014, including special operations forces, trainers, and other personnel to assist with medical evacuations and air support operations. Afghan security officials claim they will need NATO airpower until the country has a viable air force, which may not be until 2017.
But the U.S. and Afghanistan have yet to finalize long-term plans because the Karzai administration is objecting to certain U.S. requirements related to legal protection for American personnel. The U.S. is demanding that the Afghan government provide immunity to remaining troops, a contentious issue given the case against Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who allegedly killed 17 people during a massacre in an Afghan village in March.
Meanwhile, also on Thursday, the Senate voted 62-33 to accelerate the withdrawal of the 66,000 U.S. troops currently stationed in Afghanistan. Although the vote was on a nonbinding amendment to a defense policy bill, it sent a clear bipartisan message to the White House