Washington (CNSNews.com) – The U.S. will retain a presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014 to continue counterterrorism operations in that country, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told lawmakers Thursday.
“We believe that there will be some continuing presence of NATO in Afghanistan following 2014, which is in the process of being negotiated through the Strategic Partnership Declaration, so that there will be an American presence to continue CT [counterterrorism ] operations, to, you know, support the Afghans when needed, to send a signal to the region that there is not a free shot available here,” she told a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.
NATO forces in Afghanistan are currently led by U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, who is also the commander of U.S. forces there. Pending Senate confirmation, he moves to head up the CIA in September, to be replaced in Afghanistan by Marine Lt. Gen. John Allen.
In her opening remarks to the Senate panel, Clinton explained that the U.S. was “working with the Afghans on a new Strategic Partnership Declaration that will provide a long-term framework for our bilateral cooperation and bolster Afghan and regional confidence that we will not abandon Afghanistan.”
“As the president said last night, this will ensure that we will be able to continue targeting terrorists and supporting a sovereign Afghan government,” she added. “It will provide a backdrop for reconciliation with insurgents who meet clear red lines.”
In December 2009, President Obama announced a plan to send a surge of 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan, adding that he would begin a phased withdrawal in July 2011.
On Wednesday night, he announced that 10,000 troops would be out by the end of this year and a total of 33,000 by September 2012.
Obama has endorsed a plan to have Afghan forces in the lead of their own security by the end of 2014 while maintaining a “long-term” partnership with Afghanistan thereafter.
During the hearing, Clinton suggested that a recommendation by Petraeus for a troop withdrawal smaller than the one Obama announced on Wednesday may have been overruled by the president.
“Is it possible to share with us what Gen. Petraeus’ recommendation was with regards to the [withdrawal] timetable and the numbers?” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) asked Clinton.
“I’m not going to be able to do that,” she replied. “But I can tell you that the decision that the president made was supported by the national security team and I think it would be totally understandable that a military commander would want as many troops for as long as he can get them.”
“But any military commander with the level of expertise and experience that Gen. Petraeus has also knows what he wants is just part of the overall decision matrix and that there are other factors at work. And so at the end of the day I think the president made the right decision.”
During a background briefing before Obama’s speech, a senior administration official was questioned about whether or not the general supported the president’s drawdown plan.
“General Petraeus presented the president with a range of options for pursuing this drawdown,” responded the official. “There were certainly options that went beyond what the president settled on in terms of the length of time that it would take to recover the surge and the pace that troops would come out – so there were options that would have kept troops in Afghanistan longer, at a higher number.”
“That said, the president’s decision was fully within the range of options that were presented to him and has the full support of his national security team,” the official added.