General: Al Qaeda has expanded throughout Afghanistan

Getty Images

Top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said Wednesday he did not believe the Taliban posed an existential threat to Afghanistan, but U.S. troops will still be needed there after the war ends in December to prevent al Qaeda from "regenerating degraded capabilities."

“Where at one time al Qaeda could be isolated — as we intended to do 2001 — extremist networks have now expanded in the country,” Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. 

“Increased cooperation and coordination can be seen between al Qaeda and other extremists like the Haqqani Network, Tahrik-e Taliban Pakistan and Lashkar-e-Taiba,” he said in his prepared statement. 

In particular, he said the Haqqani Network remained the most virulent strain of the insurgency, the greatest risk to coalition forces, and a critical enabler of al Qaeda. 

In addition, he said the Afghan Taliban also “remain a potent and resilient threat," and recommended that U.S. troops remain in the country after U.S. and NATO combat operations end in December, as part of an advising mission called "Resolute Support."

"I assess that without the Resolute Support mission, the progress made to date will not be sustainable," he said. 

Dunford recommended a presence of 8,000 to 12,000 U.S. and NATO forces to help Afghan forces develop their air force, intelligence enterprise, special operations, and security ministries’ capacity to plan, program, budget, and otherwise support its units. 

"If we leave in 2014, the Afghan security forces would begin to deteriorate," he told lawmakers. "If we don't stay there, we will have a new fight."

The White House is considering various plans, including one that would have 10,000 U.S. troops remain after December and would draw down to nearly zero by the time President Obama leaves office, according to the Wall Street Journal

"There would be increased risk," Dunford replied to questioning by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) about whether he supported such a plan. 

To date, President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign a bilateral security agreement that would allow U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan after December, saying he wished to wait for his successor to sign it after presidential elections on April 5. 

The successor is not likely to be sworn in until August, leaving only four months to sign an agreement before troops would have to leave. 

Dunford said he would not recommend changing the force posture between now and July, but after that, if a BSA is not signed soon after, forces would have to begin drawing down or face high risk.

"The risk of an orderly withdrawal begins to be high in September,” he said.