Al Qaeda battle in Afghanistan to stretch for years: U.S.

WASHINGTON Thu Nov 29, 2012 7:33pm EST

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta speaks during a change of command ceremony at the United States Southern Command in Doral, Florida, November 19, 2012. REUTERS/Rhona Wise

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta speaks during a change of command ceremony at the United States Southern Command in Doral, Florida, November 19, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Rhona Wise

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Al Qaeda fighters are still trying to make inroads into Afghanistan, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Thursday, cautioning that battling the group would be a core U.S. mission there for years to come.

Panetta made the comments as the United States weighs how large a military force to keep in Afghanistan when the NATO combat mission ends in 2014, ending a war that, at that point, will have stretched for over 13 years.

There are approximately 66,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but the residual force may number less than 10,000. President Barack Obama could decide in the coming weeks, although no deadline has been set.

Commenting on the scope of a post-2014 counter-terrorism mission, Panetta did not mention al Qaeda allies or Taliban militants battling U.S. forces. He said fighting the core al Qaeda group to prevent it from re-establishing a safe haven in Afghanistan was "going to be the fundamental thrust of the (counter-terrorism) effort."

A narrow focus could help limit the size of the mission.

"Although we clearly have had an impact on (al Qaeda's) presence in Afghanistan, the fact is that they continue to show up," Panetta told reporters at the Pentagon.

"And intelligence continues to indicate that they are looking for some kind of capability to be able to go into Afghanistan as well."

A U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, estimated there were still only about 100 al Qaeda militants in Afghanistan.

But Jeffrey Dressler, an Afghanistan expert at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, said looking only at al Qaeda fighters - as opposed to those who ally with them - carried enormous risks.

"I think the mistake that we've made all along is too narrowly defining the threat," Dressler said.

Beyond counter-terrorism, Panetta said the post-2014 U.S. presence in Afghanistan would also need to have a "train-and-assist mission" to further develop the Afghan Army.

He also said the United States would need to provide "enablers" - specialists who perform tasks such as destroying landmines or treating the injured - to support U.S. forces.

Panetta declined to offer any estimate for the size of the force, saying that is "exactly what's being discussed" now.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart, editing by Stacey Joyce)

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Comments (9)
bates148 wrote:
Regroup and get ready for Iran. That is the real strategy.

Nov 29, 2012 8:22pm EST  --  Report as abuse
usagadfly wrote:
Continuing the US war in Afghanistan is simply unacceptable. The answer is “no” and it is an emphatic “no”. It is against the will of the People and against the interests of the People.

It is high time the Obama administration listened to the people who have elected him. Twice! If we had wanted Romney and his wars we would have chosen him. If we wanted Israeli wars, we would have chosen him as the Israelis and their pet political lobby did.

Stop trying to be Romney, or Bush. We want something very, very different. Get us out of ALL of Asia, and do it now. Pay the people, not the banks.

Nov 29, 2012 9:39pm EST  --  Report as abuse
Mott wrote:
“..battling the group would be a core U.S. mission there for years to come..”

What a waste.

Public is sick of this spending. Just wrap-up please.

Nov 29, 2012 9:51pm EST  --  Report as abuse
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