BRUSSELS — The United States has agreed to lead a training mission in Afghanistan after 2014 that will include troops from Germany and Italy and will operate under a new NATO mandate, officials announced Wednesday.
U.S. troops would be based in hubs in the east and south, Taliban strongholds where the Afghan army is likely to face a deadly insurgency for years to come. Germany has pledged to keep troops in the north and Italy in the west, an arrangement that would mark a continuation of the current force structure, albeit with far fewer troops.
Officials did not specify how many troops the mission, called Resolute Support, would include. They declined to say whether it would include a counterterrorism mission, one of the capabilities that the Obama administration has expressed interest in keeping after the mandate of NATO’s current troop contingent, the International Security Assistance Force, expires.
“The new mission will not be ISAF by another name,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said. “It will be significantly smaller.”
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Turkey is considering keeping troops in Kabul but has not made a definitive pledge. There was no mention of a role for British troops, who have constituted the second-largest allied contingent in the war.
The White House has been reluctant to specify how many troops it would be willing to keep in the country because it has yet to sign a security cooperation agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. That has made U.S. allies reluctant to make their own commitments to continue pouring money and troops into a deeply unpopular conflict.
After meeting with his counterparts from allied nations at NATO headquarters, Hagel told reporters that the United States has an “unwavering commitment to the future of Afghanistan.”
“We intend to be there for the long haul,” Hagel said.
Rasmussen said international trainers would advise only at the highest levels, no longer at the brigade and battalion levels. That suggested that Afghanistan’s fledgling army will do without the critical capabilities that the international community has provided, including the ability to carry out aerial medical evacuations.
U.S. military officials say the Afghan army is unmistakably in the lead, taking heavy casualties. In a recent two-week period, more than 200 Afghan forces were killed in fighting, the top commander of NATO troops in Afghanistan, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., said this week. Despite the bloodshed, NATO officials say it is time to shift the burden.
“Ultimately, it is for the Afghans to determine their own future,” Rasmussen said. “That is what transition is all about.”
Retired U.S. Lt. Gen. David Barno, an expert at the Center for a New American Security who was a commander in Afghanistan during the early years of the war, said it was not surprising that few nations are expressing an interest in keeping troops in Afghanistan.
“The vast majority of NATO nations and their populations are keen to exit Afghanistan as soon as possible and limit or eliminate future exposure to casualties,” he said.
Rasmussen and Hagel said international support for Afghanistan after 2014 is contingent on responsible behavior by the Kabul government, a clear message to Karzai, who has been a prickly and often unpredictable ally.
“Commitment is a two-way street,” Rasmussen said. “We also expect the Afghan government to live up to its obligations, including full respect for basic democratic principles and human rights.”
Hagel said a “free and fair election” in Afghanistan would be an “essential part of any future commitment.”