By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 25, 2013 – The commander of U.S. Central Command expressed confidence that the bilateral security agreement being negotiated between the United States and Afghanistan will ensure the strong partnership forged over the past 12 years continues to grow beyond 2014.
“While we are preparing to transition out of that country, we are not disengaging or turning our backs on them,” Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III said in an email interview with American Forces Press Service.
“On the contrary, we intend to stay engaged and continue to support them as they build and enhance their capability in the coming years,” he said. “We have been very clear that we desire a long-term relationship with our Afghan partners.”
Austin emphasized Afghanistan’s importance as a partner in a critical region of the world, particularly in light of its relationship with and proximity to Pakistan.
“The fact remains that while we are transitioning from Afghanistan, we’re not abandoning that country or the region,” he said. “Indeed, we cannot abandon the region given our vital interests in that complex, volatile and important part of the world.”
Of particular concern, Austin said, is the presence of groups and organizations that would seek ungoverned spaces to train and project terrorism and extremism.
“These organizations pose a threat to our homeland and our interests around the globe,” he said. “We must therefore guard against them and the ungoverned spaces they seek in parts of Afghanistan and elsewhere where they may thrive if left unchecked.”
The U.S. intent is to maintain a small force on the ground in Afghanistan after Dec. 31, 2014, said Austin, noting that the force’s follow-on mission, as envisioned, would be to continue advising, training and assisting Afghan National Security Forces and help them build both capability and confidence.
“However, this is wholly dependent upon us achieving a bilateral security agreement,” Austin emphasized. “Simply put, we will not allow U.S. forces to remain in Afghanistan without [one].”
While expressing confidence that such an agreement will be reached, Austin said he’s anxious to get it done as quickly as possible.
“The fact that we don’t yet have concurrence complicates our ability to plan our way ahead,” he said.
Resolution of the post-2014 U.S. presence in Afghanistan also will help ease concern among some regional partners that the drawdown will leave a vacuum that opens the door to destabilizing influences, Austin said.
Austin recognized the strong ties built between U.S. and Afghan forces over more than a decade of combined operations.
“Our troops have served side-by-side under incredibly difficult circumstances,” he said. “Together we’ve learned valuable lessons and built steadfast relationships.”
The United States has invested heavily in both blood and national treasure to help provide the Afghan people increased security and opportunity, he said.
“Given their strategic importance and the tremendous investment we have made on behalf of the people and country of Afghanistan over the past 12-plus years, it goes without saying that we have every intention of maintaining this important military-to-military relationship well into the future,” Austin said.
“Continuing to strengthen this partnership will remain one of my top priorities,” he added.
Austin noted the key role the United States plays in helping not only Afghanistan, but also other regional partners, build capacity so they can improve security, not just within their borders, but across the region.
“Therefore, we will remain present and engaged, primarily through foreign military sales, bilateral and multilateral training exercises and other engagements,” he said. “Ultimately, our goal is to do all that we can to promote greater security, stability and prosperity throughout the region.”