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U.S. Prepares to Depart but Will Aid Afghanistan Against Taliban

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The United States hopes that $16 billion in civilian assistance plus additional billions for military training and support for Afghan forces will prevent a collapse of the Afghan government after most U.S. and other foreign forces withdraw in 2014, a senior U.S. official said last Tuesday in Washington.

But he refused to confirm reports that as many as 25,000 U.S. troops might remain in Afghanistan after the end of 2014, saying that the U.S. president would make that decision.

Marc Grossman, Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told a conference that bilateral Afghan-U.S. talks began recently in Washington on an agreement to station U.S. troops after 2014.

The troops would provide a shock force capable of destroying any concentrated Taliban or al Qaeda forces that might try to seize and hold major population centers. The U.S. military would also protect U.S. diplomats and aid workers, provide medical support for U.S. personnel and provide other vital functions in a highly insecure environment.

"After 2015, we will be there," Grossman told the annual summit meeting of the International Stabilization Operations Association -- a group of major U.S. private contractors and other non-governmental groups who provide security guards, logistics, construction, medical support, training, and other assistance in Afghanistan, Haiti and other insecure zones.

Grossman, who replaced the late Richard Holbrooke, said "I don't see how" Afghanistan can be stable and secure unless there is an improvement in the "regional context." Although he did not name Pakistan, it was clear he referred to it as a source of insurgents and weapons.

There are currently 68,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan now that the 33,000 "surge" troops have been withdrawn, and "the president will decide" how many will remain after January 2015. Security will depend on economic progress, said Grossman and other speakers who noted that the main sources of income are minerals, agriculture and a possible "New Silk Road" enabling oil, gas and commodities to cross Afghanistan en route from Central Asia to South Asia and back.

The U.S. envoy told the contractors that "$16 billion has been pledged for economic development over four years" by the international community, and Afghanistan will need substantial private sector investment.

Former Afghan Interior Minister Mohammed Haneef Atmar praised the surge of U.S. troops for reversing the momentum of the Taliban and insurgents. However "one object of the surge was to force the Taliban into peace negotiations" and that has not yet happened, he said.

"Progress is fragile and reversible," Atmar said, noting that even in the provinces where transfer from international to Afghan security forces has taken place, there is a higher level of violence in the past couple of years.

The Afghan army has only Soviet-era artillery to combat shelling from Pakistan's tribal areas and Afghan security forces need to be strengthened, he said, "to send a message that [the insurgents] are not going to win."

He also worried that the government of Afghanistan led by President Hamid Karzai has not given a "credible" plan for free and fair elections. Honest governance and rule of law are needed for foreign investment and for economic growth, he said.

He said residual U.S. forces after 2014 could carry out counter terrorism, sustain and train Afghan forces, and deter "greedy regional players... We can't succeed in Afghanistan without Pakistani cooperation."

The international coalition has already begun to "ramp down" the two dozen Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) -- small units of about 100 troops plus three or four civilian aid experts -- and consolidate them in Kabul, said Patrick Kennedy, Undersecretary of State for Management.

The PRTs were created in Iraq and then in Afghanistan to bring health, roads, education, construction, training and other aid to regions too insecure for aid workers to operate without protection.

Moving those teams away from the provinces could open the door to a reversal of progress, a Taliban takeover and punishment of those who cooperated with U.S. and other foreign forces, said an Afghan former official at the conference, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Kennedy told the contractors that the U.S. would continue to use private security contractors (PSCs) such as those from Triple Canopy and DynCorp present at the conference. The State Department has five year contracts with eight security firms providing 34,000 contract guards at consulates and other U.S. interests, he said.

"PSCs are critical to U.S. policy," said Kennedy, "especially in areas transitioning from intense conflict." The use of PSCs is defensive -- force protection -- not force projection, he added.

To counter accusations that PSCs have used excessive force or been offensive to local mores, they now receive cultural and behavioral training and the contractors are to abide by a new code of conduct.

Aside from maintaining its own private security forces, the State Department "will be depending on DOD support for functions such as a quick reaction force, personnel recovery, fuel support, explosive ordinance disposal, and medical assistance," Kennedy said.