'Thousands' of US troops to stay in Afghanistan after 2014

Published Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Thousands of American troops could stay in Afghanistan even beyond their official pullout, the US Defense Secretary said on Tuesday.

Pentagon chief Leon Panetta said American and Afghan officials are weeks away from agreeing to a deal which would allow troops to remain in the country beyond the official drawback in 2014.

Panetta told senators a post-2014 mission would likely include counter-terrorism operations against Al-Qaeda along with providing US air power, intelligence, and logistical support for Afghan forces.

The precise number of troops has yet to be agreed upon, but at the hearing Senator Lindsey Graham called for a US force of about 15,000-20,000 to remain.

The two sides still had to resolve disagreements over controversial night raids by US troops, which Afghan President Hamid Karzai and other officials say have claimed too many civilian lives, and the transfer of US-run prisons in the country, the Pentagon chief said.

"As you know, there are two areas that we still have difficulties with, one of which involves the transfer of detention facilities, the other involves night-time raids," Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"And we continue to try to see if we can work out some kind of compromise on those issues," he said.

Panetta said most of the elements of a security pact were in place. "I'm confident that hopefully, within the next few weeks, we'll be able to reach some kind of agreement."

US troops were officially due to leave Afghanistan in 2014 when the army and police are due to take over security for the whole country.

Afghanistan last month forged strategic agreements with Britain, France, and Italy to govern security ties after NATO combat troops exit by the end of 2014.

Nearly 90,000 US troops are now deployed in Afghanistan amid plans for the force to decline to 68,000 by the end of September.

Public opinion in both Afghanistan and the US has turned against continued military involvement in the country.

A 2010 poll showed that 55 percent of Afghans want US troops to leave immediately, while a CBS poll in October 2011 showed 62 percent of Americans wanted troop numbers decreased immediately.

Afghan President Karzai has been increasingly reliant on US forces since his 2009 election victory was dogged by allegations of fraud.

In August his office called for an agreement which will keep US troops in the country indefinitely.

(AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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