KABUL, Afghanistan -- The commander of NATO ground forces in Afghanistan says there has been no discussions that the coalition would completely withdraw after 2014, despite continued uncertainty in political negotiations over the future of the international military effort.
U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Mark Milley, the No. 2 commander for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, calls the term "withdrawal" a misnomer.
"We have no indication whatsoever of a withdrawal completely from Afghanistan," he told Stars and Stripes in a Monday interview at his headquarters in Kabul. "We are going to change our mission, and we are going to reduce in size and scope."
Frustrated with negotiations with the Afghan government over leaving international troops in the country, U.S. officials floated the idea over the summer of removing all troops. For his part, President Hamid Karzai suspended the negotiations in June and said in August that he is in no hurry to sign an agreement over future troop levels.
Milley, who took command in May, acknowledged that he is still awaiting final guidance from the political leaders of NATO's member counties, including the United States, but planning is ongoing for an advising and support mission after 2014.
"The current NATO mandate ends on 31 December 2014, but there's another mission that follows that called Resolute Support which is currently in planning," he said.
There have been no signals given that U.S. troop levels will drop to zero, Milley said. "We haven't been told to plan for that."
Military leaders have been trying to assure the Afghans, and a skeptical American public, that the reduction in American troops is tied, as Milley insisted, to the capabilities of the Afghan security forces.
"We're only pulling out of areas where we think the Afghan security forces are capable of standing up and fighting on their own," he said. "But even when they, ‘fight on their own,' we are still going to provide limited [intelligence and reconnaissance] and close-air support, because those capabilities won't be ready for several years."
That message of a conditional reduction is complicated by President Barack Obama's pledge to cut the American presence in Afghanistan from nearly 70,000 troops earlier this year to 34,000 by February 2014. All "combat" troops are scheduled to leave at the end of next year.
"All the national leaders of the various countries of NATO, to include our own, have publicly stated many times that we're not going to abandon Afghanistan," Milley said.
Milley's boss, ISAF commander U.S. Gen. Joseph Dunford, told The Guardian newspaper that Afghan forces may need up to five more years of international military support. Support for the war effort has dwindled among the American public, however, and military leaders calling for a continued military presence in Afghanistan are often finding little support among political leaders.
For the first time this summer, Afghan forces took responsibility for security across the country. Milley, who called 2013 a "critical" year for the developing ANSF.
On Monday, Afghanistan's Interior Minister Umer Daudzai revealed that more than 1,700 Afghan police officers have been killed since March. The same number died in the preceding 12 months, according to Reuters. The Afghan government does not publish regular casualty numbers.
Despite the rising death toll among Afghan forces as NATO has withdrawn from many areas, Milley said he still doesn't anticipate a "general deterioration" in the security situation.
He admitted that there is still significant fighting in certain regions, especially rural areas, but the Afghans are more than holding their own.
"What is not solidified is yet is the institutional-level capabilities, the higher-end capabilities that are required to sustain tactical combat operations over time," Milley said. "We still have a fair amount of work to do in that regard. But tactically, the Afghan security forces -- both the army and the police -- have acquitted themselves very well this summer."