BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan —
There are now about 66,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. That number is to drop to about 32,000 by February 2014, and the combat mission is to end in December 2014. Whether some number — perhaps 9,000 or 10,000 — remain into 2015 as military trainers and counterinsurgents is yet to be decided.
Dempsey spent two days talking to senior Afghan officials, including his counterpart, Gen. Sher Mohammad Karimi, as well as top U.S. and allied commanders.
He also visited a U.S. base in the volatile eastern province of Paktika for an update on how U.S. troops are balancing the twin missions of advising Afghan forces and withdrawing tons of U.S. equipment as the war effort winds down.
Paktika is an example of a sector of Afghanistan that is likely to face Taliban resistance for years to come.
Bordering areas of Pakistan that provide haven for the Taliban and its affiliated Haqqani network, Paktika has been among the more important insurgent avenues into the Afghan interior.
While the province has a functioning government, Taliban influence remains significant in less populated areas, as it has since U.S. forces first invaded the country more than 11 years ago.
“There will be contested areas, and it will be the Afghans’ choice whether to allow those contested areas to persist, or, when necessary, take action to exert themselves into those contested area,” he said.
Dempsey said he is encouraged by the recent development of coordination centers, including one in Paktika, where a wide range of Afghan government agencies work together on security issues. He called it a “quilt” of government structures that links Kabul, the capital, to ordinary Afghans in distant villages.
In some parts of the country, Afghan villagers have shown their dissatisfaction with Taliban influence by taking up arms against the insurgents, even without being pushed by the U.S. or by Kabul. This has happened in recent weeks in the Panjwai district of Kandahar province, a traditional stronghold of the Taliban. The Andar district of Ghazni province has seen a similar uprising.