Defense Secretary Ashton Carter strongly signaled Wednesday that the U.S. will retain a sizeable force of counter-terror, training and air support troops in Afghanistan well past the current deadline for their withdrawal at the end of 2016.
Carter also said that the U.S. will have to adapt to a "new reality" of an aggressive Russia that will involve prolonged containment and confrontation in Europe and the Mideast. "It's a very different playbook, and again, I wish we didn't have to do that" to counter Russian President Vladimir Putin, he said.
"I do think that we are committed to an enduring presence in Afghanistan that makes good on the tremendous effort" that U.S. troops have invested in the country since 2001, Carter said in response to questions at the at the annual exposition and meeting of the Association of the U.S. Army at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C.
"It's not a question of whether, but how to continue the mission in Afghanistan," Carter said, "and last week it became clear that our NATO allies feel the same way, as many of my counterparts made a point of re-affirming their commitment."
Carter said that the Army will play a vital role in the continuing mission in Afghanistan to counter al Qaida and the growing presence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
"No one can do this better than the Army, which has learned a lot about counter-terrorism operations and local force training over the course of two wars, and is best equipped to establish a lasting and effective counter-terrorism platform in Afghanistan," he said.
President Obama's current plan would have all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by early 2017 with the exception of what would essentially be an embassy presence of about 1,000.
However, Carter noted that Obama has already altered the plan, deciding last March to slow the withdrawal rate to keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan through the summer fighting season at the request of Army Gen. John Campbell, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan.
In congressional testimony earlier this month, Campbell said he had presented Obama with several options, but it was his own judgment that U.S. troops should remain. Campbell did not discuss numbers, but White House officials reportedly are considering a force of about 5,000.
Carter said that the Army would have a central role in a revamped strategy to contain Russia. "That's why we deployed the 173rd Airborne to train Ukrainian security forces under Atlantic Resolve, and that's why additional units of the 173rd trained alongside our allies in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland," he said.
"It's why we've moved Stryker units and brigade-sized elements from the 2nd Cavalry through 1,800 kilometers of Eastern Europe alongside our allies from Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary," he said.
"And that's why we'll continue to need the Army's posture and presence in Europe, reassuring allies and reminding adversaries of our unmatched capabilities, strength, reach and readiness," Carter said.
On Syria, Carter said Putin seemed to be embarked upon the same aggressive course he has followed in other regions. "This is a new reality for us strategically, but it looks like it's here to stay," he said.
"This is a fundamental strategic mistake (by Putin), one that will enflame and prolong the Syrian civil war. We have not, and will not, agree to cooperate with Russia so long as they continue to pursue this misguided strategy," Carter said.
The Pentagon said earlier that U.S. and Russian defense officials were meeting again by video conference Wednesday in an effort to work out agreements to avoid dangerous encounters between U.S. and Russian aircraft over Syria.
On Tuesday, Putin mocked the U.S. attempts to "de-conflict" on Syria. "Recently, we have offered the Americans -- give us objects that we shouldn't target. Again, no answer," Putin told reporters. "It seems to me that some of our partners have mush for brains."
--Richard Sise reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com.