WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States must make a long-term commitment to Afghanistan to stop security there from worsening and prevent attacks on the West by militants based there, the outgoing commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan said on Tuesday.
General John Campbell testified before a congressional committee that while Afghan security forces had shown “uneven” performance and faced leadership problems, continued U.S. support for the Afghan government was needed to defeat militants including the Taliban, al Qaeda, and the Haqqani network.
“These are certainly not residual threats that would allow for a peaceful transition across Afghanistan,” Campbell said. “The threats Afghanistan faces require our sustained attention and forward presence.”
That includes financial support until the Afghan economy can support the population, which Campbell estimated would be “at least” 2024. The United States will this year require more of the Afghan government before it provides funding, in order to spur reforms, he said.
U.S. defense officials have warned of a nascent Islamic State presence in some Afghan provinces, and the White House has given the military broad authority to target Islamic State there.
The threat of attacks staged by militant groups based in Afghanistan and the surrounding region requires continued U.S. engagement, Campbell said.
“If we think we can just stop and it’s going to go away, or people are not going to continue to try to attack Europe or attack our homeland here, then we’re naive, we’re kidding ourselves,” he said. “We have to be able to continue to have a long-term commitment.”
Campbell has commanded U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan for the past 18 months and is expected to retire. President Barack Obama has chosen Lieutenant General John Nicholson to replace Campbell.
A Pentagon report released in December said the security situation in Afghanistan deteriorated in the second half of 2015, with the Taliban staging more attacks and inflicting more casualties on Afghan forces.
The outlook prompted Obama to announce in October that he would maintain a force of 9,800 troops in Afghanistan through most of 2016, instead of drawing down to an embassy-based presence by 2017.
Of 407 district centers in Afghanistan, 26 are under insurgent control or influence, Campbell said, with another 94 district centers viewed as at risk at any given time.
Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and David Gregorio