WASHINGTON -- The U.S. should keep troops in Afghanistan after the combat mission ends next year, but a decision on the number can wait until the Afghan army has been tested in this summer's fighting, the top U.S. commander in Kabul said Tuesday.
In his first congressional testimony since taking over in February, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the U.S. should make an assessment in November, at the customary end of the fighting season.
"My strongest military advice is not to pin down a number right now," Dunford said under questioning by a skeptical Sen. John McCain, a Republican. Before Dunford could finish his thought, McCain interjected, "Don't you understand, general, that one of the reasons why we're having so much difficulty in some areas is because the Afghans don't know what our commitment is?"
McCain said he thinks Dunford's approach is a "tragic and terrible mistake for which we may pay a very heavy price" because it leaves ordinary Afghans with too little confidence in the future.
Dunford said he agreed that Afghans worry about the future, and he argued that the most important indicator of the U.S. commitment would be the signing of a security agreement -- currently being negotiated -- that would ensure long-term U.S. support and provide a legal basis for a continued U.S. troop presence.
"There is a growing sense that December 2014 is a cliff for the Afghan people," Dunford said in his prepared opening statement to the committee. "That dynamic must be addressed with a credible, compelling narrative of U.S. commitment. Absent confidence in the hope for a brighter future, Afghan leaders, the Afghan people and regional actors will continue to hedge and plan for the worst case. The behavior associated with that mindset has the very real potential to undermine the campaign."
There are now about 63,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
In his overall assessment of the war effort, Dunford was mostly upbeat. He said the last few years of fighting had reversed the Taliban's momentum, pushed insurgents out of population centers and made them less of a threat to the Afghan government.
Dunford argued that the U.S. should remain present in Afghanistan beyond 2014 to train Afghan forces. If that does not happen, "it would be a question of time" before Afghan security would deteriorate, he said.