Afghan soldiers train at an Army facility outside Kabul last fall.

Afghan soldiers train at an Army facility outside Kabul last fall. AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus

Do U.S. Troops Really Need to Stay in Afghanistan?

A top U.S. commander says Afghan security forces can take on the Taliban. Does the U.S. need to stay for Afghanistan to succeed? By Stephanie Gaskell

“The Taliban lost the fight in the summer of 2013.”

That’s the assessment of a top U.S. commander in Afghanistan who says that the Afghan army and police are doing a great job fending off the Taliban and other fighters. It’s the most optimistic evaluation of the nascent, now 350,000-strong Afghan security force to date. And it may leave many wondering: Do the Afghans really need U.S. and NATO forces to stay beyond 2014?

Lt. Gen. Mark Milley, commander of the International Security Assistance Force’s Joint Command, said Thursday that the Afghan National Security Forces were a formidable foe against Taliban and Haqqani fighters during this past fighting season. But there’s more to standing up a national army and police force than just tactical fighting, he argued.

“We know that the Afghan battalions and companies can fight. We know they can shoot, move, communicate. They can conduct combined arms operations. We know that all of the maneuver brigades and -- all 24 of them -- are either partially capable, capable, or fully capable. We know that the corps can conduct, plan, coordinate, synchronize, and execute combined arms operation.  That's important,” he said. “But tactics an army does not make. They have to be more than that. They have to be more than tactics.”

Milley said the Afghans still need help with building institutional systems to replenish forces, manage personnel and budgets, conduct intelligence operations, train pilots and medics, and bolster their counter-IEDs capabilities.

“Throughout the summer it was a tough fight, and the Afghans stood up to the fight from their enemies, and they fought very, very well across the board throughout all of the provinces and the districts and so on,” Milley told Pentagon reporters on Thursday, via satellite from Kabul.

“In my professional assessment, after 35 years and multiple tours here in Afghanistan, I can tell you that the Afghan security forces were tactically overmatching anything that the Taliban, Haqqani or anybody else could throw at them. And they performed extraordinarily well -- and they didn't do that with a whole lot of ISAF or international help. They had some. We provided that over the summer. But for the most part, the Afghans carried the heavy load throughout the summer and I think that's enormously significant,” he said.

That’s quite a vote of confidence in a military and police department that barely existed just a few years ago. And it’s sure to be fuel for those who want to bring all U.S. troops home after 13 years of war there, especially as Afghan President Hamid Karzai continues to balk at signing a troop agreement to keep U.S. forces beyond this year.

[READ MORE: So When Does the U.S. Really Need Afghanistan to Sign the Troop Deal?]

There are reports that U.S. military leaders want at least 10,000 U.S. troops for any post-war mission. Karzai has said he would support that, even while he plays politics with a post-2014 deal.

Eight U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan this year. But Milley said it’s now the Afghans that are taking the brunt of the casualties. He declined to give specific numbers, but said ANSF casualties are up 50 to 70 percent.

“I can tell you that there was probably somewhere in the range of 3,000 to 4,000 firefights in this past fighting season, if you will. And of those, several thousands of firefights the Afghan security forces probably lost somewhere between 100 and 150 maybe,” he said. “In 95-plus percent of the tactical firefights, tactical engagements that the Afghan security forces fought in, they clearly held their ground and defeated the attacks from the enemy.”  

The number of U.S. troops is on track to drop to just 34,000 by Feb. 1.

“We are confident right now in the Afghan security forces.  And we're confident that we're going to continue to train, advise and assist them and to support them in the coming months. And then we are confident that we will do that, as well, beyond 2014,” Milley said.  

Even with all their successes, the war is still far from over. “I would expect more suicide-type, high-profile spectacular attacks. And I would expect that those would be aimed at Afghan security forces, Afghan officials, ISAF, our own forces, as well as innocent civilians.”