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 U.S. 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 BSA 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 BSA 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 U.S. 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 U.S. does not sign the security deal, it is unlikely that NATO or any of its allies will keep troops in Afghanistan after 2014. Germany has already said that its offer to keep hundreds of trainers in Afghanistan was contingent on American and other soldiers being part of the training mission.
Talks on the deal were suspended by Karzai in June over the opening of a Taliban office in the Gulf state of Qatar.
Those U.S.-sponsored talks foundered before they even began when the Taliban marked the opening of its office with the flag, anthem and symbols of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan - the group's name when they ruled the country. Karzai immediately pulled the plug on talks saying the office had all the trappings of an embassy of a government in exile.
"Eventually I believe there has to be a political solution to the conflict and it doesn't surprise me that peace talks have been difficult. We are trying to reconcile two groups that have been at war now really for 10 years, and one group that oppressed the Afghan people for 10 years prior to that time. So we are dealing with 20 years of history here as we try to resolve or reconcile the Taliban and the Afghan people," Dunford said.
Dunford also said that the fledgling Afghan army and police forces, which took the lead for security around the country two months ago, will be able to stand up against the insurgency as Taliban gear up for increased attacks following the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
But, he added, the 352,000-strong force will still need training and mentoring after foreign combat troops leave at the end of 2014.
"The fact is that on June 18 we did hand over full responsibility for security across the country to the Afghan forces. They have proven resilient. We know what the Taliban decided to do this summer, trying to seize terrain, trying to conduct high profile attacks, trying to conduct insider attacks, but mostly to crush the spirit and will of the Afghan forces, and they certainly have not been able to that," Dunford said at his military headquarters in downtown Kabul.
Dunford, who took command of international forces in February, added that Afghanistan will also need help after 2014 to counter extremist threats similar to the ones that led the U.S. to invade Afghanistan to rout al-Qaida following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on America.
Peace talks, he said, will one day lead to a political solution in the nearly 12-year conflict, as the Taliban eventually realize that they have no way of winning a protracted conflict or of taking over the country.
Dunford said that a long-term commitment to Afghanistan
was needed to prevent a resurgence of the extremist groups that created the groundwork for the 9/11 attacks. Only a strong, stable and peaceful Afghanistan could prevent that from happening again, he said.
"I would just say specifically to the American people and to the international community that sacrificed so much that we are still here for the same reason we came here after 9/11," Dunford said.
He added that during the past decade "we also realized that the way to ensure that is to harden Afghanistan, harden them from a security perspective, harden them from a political perspective, harden them from an economic perspective."
Insurgent attacks have increased since the handover of security responsibility, causing a dramatic rise in casualties for Afghan civilians and security forces alike.
According to the United Nations, Afghanistan's civilian casualty toll has jumped this year as insurgents fight to recapture territory from the departing American-led coalition. In the first half of 2013, the number of dead rose 14 percent and the number of wounded 28 percent, compared with the January-June period last year, said the United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan in its mid-year report.
Afghan Security Forces have so far lost 619 police officers and 468 soldiers this year, according to an AP tally. By comparison, the same tally showed that 907 police and 963 army personnel died in 2012.
Dunford said that mitigating the casualty rate was something that both the Afghan forces and coalition were trying to address, along with a high rate of police and soldiers dropping out of the security services.
But he said his biggest issue was to ensure that the Afghan people and security forces are confident that the coalition will show the commitment needed over the next year and-a-half and beyond 2015, when combat troops are to be replaced by a far smaller international force.
"The thing that is most important right now is the confidence of the Afghan people, the confidence of the Afghan security forces and trying to ensure that they know we are committed now and into the future, that we will finish what we started in terms of developing the (Afghan forces) and that more broadly the international community will stand with Afghanistan into the decade of opportunity, 2015 and beyond," Dunford said.
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.