(CNSNews.com) - Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday that the U.S. will maintain a military presence in Afghanistan beyond the end of 2014, the date when President Obama says Afghan forces are supposed to take full responsibility for security in their own country.
Mullen also told the panel that President Obama’s plan to withdraw 33,000 U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of next summer increases the “military risk” for U.S. forces.
“We continue on this path to shift lead security responsibility to the Afghans by the end of 2014,” Mullen said in response to a question by Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.). Mullen said the situation in Afghanistan will be similar to that in Iraq--a shift to a training mission and negotiations with the Afghanis on what the long-term strategic relationship will be.
“That’s why I think this strategic partnership declaration currently being negotiated is so important, because that really is the commitment. We’re going to be there longer than 2014.” A “long-term commitment” in Afghanistan “is absolutely critical,” Mullen added.
While the future U.S. partnership with Afghanistan is still taking shape, Mullen said there is no doubt that a hasty departure by U.S. troops would backfire in the long run.
“We can speculate about that -- what the composition [of U.S. military presence in Afghanistan post-2014] might be. I honestly don’t know, and there’s been no determination except to say that there is this long-term commitment,” testified Mullen. “He said if the U.S. leaves the region too soon, “we’ll be back. It will only get worse. And you’ve got a very unstable -- two unstable countries, quite frankly -- one (Pakistan) with nuclear weapons, terrorists who seek nuclear weapons -- and the proliferation of them (nukes) -- without any question, should we depart, will bring us back in a much more difficult situation.”
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who testified along with Mullen, said President Obama has made it clear from the beginning that that the U.S. will maintain an “enduring presence” in Afghanistan. “We’re in the process, obviously, of negotiating that now,” Panetta told lawmakers.
As the troop drawdown proceeds, “we have to be prepared to listen to their needs and what will they need in terms of training, in terms of security in the future -- that will give us the opportunity to ensure that all the gains that have been made will continue on the right track.”
At Thursday’s hearing, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the panel’s ranking Republican, asked Mullen, “From a military strategic standpoint, how beneficial would it be if the president decided to delay the departure of the remaining surge force [in Afghanistan] from the summer of next year to the end of next year?”
“In terms of risk, the commander, every commander, and this is not just Gen. [John] Allen or Gen. [David] Petraeus before him, would like as much combat power for as long as possible,” responded Mullen. “So I think there is increased risk.”
But Mullen went on to say that he “absolutely” supports the president’s withdrawal plan.
“Generally speaking, the commanders are going to want combat power for as long as possible,” added Mullen. “That said, the decision has been made to bring them out by the end of (next) summer, and I think while the risk is up, I think it’s manageable in that there’s no question that we can get there and sustain the military success, the military component of the campaign.”
McCain pressed Mullen, “But there is no doubt that every military leader, including Gen. Allen, has testified openly that by accelerating the withdrawal it does increase the military risk?”
“It does increase the risk – the military risk,” responded Mullen.
Mullen cautioned the committee to consider the composition of forces in Afghanistan as well as the sheer numbers. “It isn’t just simply always about numbers, and in Afghanistan in particular, it’s the combined security forces, because the Afghan security forces are going to be in a lot better shape…”
The Obama administration has stressed that Afghan forces will take the lead role for their security by the end of 2014. In March, White House Spokesman Jay Carney said the president’s plan is “to begin a transition process in July of 2011, which will begin a process that will lead to turning over the security lead to the Afghan security forces by the end of 2014.”
Obama in December 2009 announced that he was increasing the U.S. presence in Afghanistan by 30,000 troops and that U.S. forces would begin withdrawing in July 2011. Then the president announced on June 22 that 10,000 troops would be out by the end of this year and another 23,000 by September 2012.
Both Mullen and Panetta said that while progress has been made in Afghanistan, challenges still remain such as illiteracy among Afghan forces recruits, terrorist safe havens in Pakistan, and corruption within the Afghan government. They added that those challenges must be addressed in order to have a responsible transition of security responsibilities to the Afghan forces.