BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — The United States accepts that a diminished but resilient Taliban is likely to remain a military threat in some parts of Afghanistan long after U.S. troops complete their combat mission next year, the top U.S. military officer said Sunday.
In an Associated Press interview at this airfield north of Kabul, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he is cautiously optimistic that the Afghan army will hold its own against the insurgency as Western troops pull back and Afghans assume the lead combat role. He said that by May or June, the Afghans will be in the lead throughout the country.
Asked whether some parts of the country will remain contested by the Taliban, he replied, "Yes, of course there will be."
"And if we were having this conversation 10 years from now, I suspect there would (still) be contested areas because the history of Afghanistan suggests that there will always be contested areas," he said.
He and other U.S. commanders have said that ultimately the Afghans must reach some sort of political accommodation with the insurgents, and that a reconciliation process needs to be led by Afghans, not Americans. Thus, the No. 1 priority for the U.S. military in its final months of combat in Afghanistan is to do all that is possible to boost the strength and confidence of Afghan forces.
Shortly after Dempsey arrived in Afghanistan on Saturday, the Taliban demonstrated its ability to strike.
It claimed responsibility for a suicide car bombing that killed five Americans -- three soldiers and two civilians, including Anne Smedinghoff, a foreign service officer and the first American diplomat killed overseas since the terrorist attack Sept. 11 in Benghazi, Libya.
A fierce battle between U.S.-backed Afghan forces and Taliban militants in a remote corner of eastern Afghanistan left nearly 20 people dead, including 11 Afghan children killed in an airstrike, Afghan officials said Sunday.
There are now about 66,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. That number is to drop to about 32,000 by February 2014, and the combat mission is to end in December 2014. Whether some number — perhaps 9,000 or 10,000 — remain into 2015 as military trainers and counterinsurgents is yet to be decided.
Dempsey spent two days talking to senior Afghan officials, including his counterpart, Gen. Sher Mohammad Karimi, as well as top U.S. and allied commanders.