The American and Afghan defense chiefs met Wednesday at the Pentagon and said they are working to develop a bilateral relationship that will extend beyond the hoped-for end of NATO’s combat role in Afghanistan four years from now.
This was the first meeting of what the two defense ministers hope will become a regular strategic dialogue between their departments. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the goal is to establish the foundation for defense relations beyond the 2014 target date for completing the transition to full Afghan government responsibility for security in the country.
“We hope this inaugural meeting of the Security Consultation Forum is an important milestone in our relationship," said Gates. "And we hope it will serve as a regular means for providing important strategic direction to our relationship.”
Gates said the dialogue will set shared expectations and goals for the U.S.-Afghan defense relationship and will demonstrate the two governments are committed to “putting Afghanistan on a path toward stability and security.”
As the meeting opened, Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak endorsed the concept, and the need for some sort of continuing defense relationship after the transition to full Afghan responsibility.
“We do strongly believe that for Afghanistan to be able to survive in that very volatile region it will need your help beyond 2014,” said Wardak.
Afghanistan has made significant progress on building its security forces, Wardak said, but will continue to need U.S. help as it moves toward and beyond the transition.
There are currently nearly 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but President Barack Obama said that number will begin to come down in July. Officials expect a gradual withdrawal during the next four years, with some support troops remaining even after the end of 2014.
The United States is scheduled to complete a similar transition in Iraq this year. There, U.S. combat operations ended last August and all the troops are to be out by the end of the year.
U.S. officials hope Iraq will ask for some small continued presence - like the one they expect in Afghanistan - to provide air power and support services, and to act as a stabilizing influence to balance sectarian tension. But there has been no discussion toward any such agreement, partly because the new Iraqi government has not yet named a defense minister.