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US Contemplates Afghan Endgame, Timing Unclear - 2002-01-26


U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan for at least several months more, which could cause concern among some countries. But, senior defense officials say so far no one is complaining.

A senior defense official tells VOA the notion that the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan will take some time is one that countries in the region, especially nearby Arab countries, do not want to hear.

But the Pentagon's top civilian and military leaders say, so far, no one is voicing any complaints about the likelihood that American troops will remain for at least several months more.

General Richard Myers, Chairman of the military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, has just returned to Washington from a trip to Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. He said the question of the length of the U.S. stay did not even come up. "We talked about many aspects of the war in Afghanistan," he said. "And, in fact, they didn't ask that question. I think the allies that I talked to understand that we've got to be patient, this is going to take some time. They know Afghanistan is a very dangerous place."

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the question of when U.S. forces will leave is an important one. But he said America's coalition partners in the war on terrorism understand there is much unfinished business in Afghanistan, like wiping out pockets of Taleban and al-Qaida resistance. "It's an important question and, needless to say, all of the elements of it have not been resolved. But we do know that there are still a number, a non-trivial number of pockets of al Qaida and Taleban," he said. "They're there. And we keep finding them, and we intend to keep doing that."

In addition, Mr. Rumsfeld said the Bush administration still wants to locate the missing leaders of the Taleban and al-Qaida, including Mullah Mohamed Omar and Osama bin Laden. "We know we have not satisfied ourselves with respect to the rounding up of the requisite number of senior Taliban and al Qaeda leadership that we feel we want to continue to put pressure on and capture if we can to keep them from conducting additional terrorist acts, on the one hand, and to keep them from turning Afghanistan back into a haven for terrorists," he said.

But even beyond those clear military assignments, Mr. Rumsfeld said the United States and its allies do not want to abandon Afghanistan's new interim government, which he said faces a host of daunting domestic challenges, including economic and social problems in addition to security questions. "Expecting an interim government to go through a - whatever it is - let's assume it's going to be the requisite six-month period, and then successfully transition to a permanent government, in that kind of an environment, expecting that to happen smoothly, I think, is unrealistic," he said.

Mr. Rumsfeld insisted U.S. forces have no intention of staying in Afghanistan a moment longer than necessary. But he maked clear the United States will not walk away before the job is done. "Now you know, how long it will be, I just don't know. You can be sure we're not going to stay there a second longer than we have to, but we also feel an obligation to be a responsible nation and participate in this process and help them navigate through what has to be an enormously difficult thing to do," he said.

The United States has an estimated 4,000 ground troops inside Afghanistan and hundreds more forces in such neighboring countries as Pakistan and Uzbekistan. Thousands more are aboard U.S. Navy ships in the Arabian Sea. U.S. warplanes fly missions over Afghanistan from land bases in the region as well as from aircraft carriers off the coast of Pakistan.

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