Al-Qaeda Threat to U.S. Cited as Risk in Afghanistan Exit

Al-Qaeda is likely to re-emerge from hiding places in Afghanistan to plan attacks on the U.S. homeland unless American counterterrorism forces remain in the country after this year, the head of U.S.-led forces there said.

Elements of al-Qaeda continue to operate from Kunar and Nuristan provinces, and the group would “view it as a great victory were we to withdraw so they’d have the space within which to conduct operations,” Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, commander of the International Security Assistance Force, told the Senate Armed Services committee today.

In invoking the threat of potential attacks on the U.S., Dunford tied the military’s case for a continued presence in Afghanistan directly to the terrorist threat the U.S. cited when it intervened there after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“It’d be not only a physical reconstitution for al-Qaeda as a movement, it’d allow them to become the vanguard of the movement” by claiming a moral victory, he said of a U.S. departure.

The Obama administration has said a continued presence of U.S. troops and those of allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization hinges on a bilateral security agreement between the U.S. and the South Asian country. The agreement has been delayed because Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign it, saying he’ll leave the decision to his successor after presidential elections scheduled for April 5.

The elections are unlikely to produce a clear winner, requiring a runoff round, Dunford said, so a new Afghan president who could sign an agreement with the U.S. isn’t likely to take office until August.

September Deadline

“The risk that we would totally withdraw begins to be high in September,” Dunford said. “That’s simply a function of the tasks that need to be accomplished and how many days we have to accomplish those tasks.”

Such a delay would produce uncertainty for Afghans about their future, push countries in the region to hedge their bets and potentially lead to an unraveling of the international coalition in Afghanistan, Dunford said.

The U.S. and its allies have about 52,000 troops in Afghanistan and plan to withdraw all their combat forces by the end of this year. The war so far has cost 2,312 American lives, with 19,665 personnel wounded in action, according to Pentagon data compiled by Bloomberg.

The U.S. and NATO are considering proposals to keep 8,000 to 12,000 troops to continue training Afghan forces for the next few years, if they can reach an agreement with Afghanistan.

Additional Troops

Dunford said today that the U.S. is planning “additional thousands” of American troops to conduct counterterrorism operations in the region.

If the U.S. and Afghanistan fail to reach agreement and all forces are withdrawn, the capacity of Afghan military and police units will start to unravel next year, Dunford told lawmakers.

“Deterioration of Afghan forces begins to happen fairly quickly in 2015” in the absence of international support, Dunford said. Although Afghan forces can conduct operations, their logistics and supply systems remain weak, he said.

“Units would run out of fuel, base systems would not be operable, spare parts would not be available for vehicles, and we’ll start to see a decrease in readiness,” Dunford said. “Obviously their operational reach would be less,” he said. Without a troop presence “we would not be able to complete our work for the Afghan Air Force, which is two or three years away.”

The U.S. and its NATO allies already have begun planning for a full withdrawal in case a security agreement cannot be reached in time.

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