KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- The top U.S. and coalition commander in Afghanistan stressed Saturday that the signing of a stalled bilateral security agreement between America and Afghanistan was needed to send a clear signal both to the Afghan people and the Taliban that the international community remains committed to the country's future stability even as foreign forces withdraw.
Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, who commands the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force, told the Associated Press it was important to sign the deal, which has been stalled since June by President Hamid Karzai. He did not say if the deal was close to signing, but there have been indications recently that it is nearing that.
Last month U.S. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he would like to see an agreement by October to give NATO enough time to prepare for a post-2014 military presence instead of a total pullout.
"There is no doubt that the bilateral security agreement is going to send a clear message first and foremost to the Afghan people and Afghan security forces and enhance their confidence to deal with the challenges that we will have to deal with collectively in the coming months," Dunford said.
He added that "the BSA will also send a loud and clear signal to regional actors and they will know also that the U.S. and international community is going to remain committed to a stable, peaceful and unified Afghanistan, and I also think the BSA will send a message to the Taliban that they can't wait us out."
Afghanistan and the United States have been negotiating the agreement, which would allow the presence of foreign troops beyond the end of 2014. When signed, it would allow a small force of trainers and possibly counterterrorism troops to remain. Although no numbers have been announced yet, it is believed they would be about 9,000 from the U.S. and 6,000 from its allies.
There are currently about 100,000 troops from 48 countries in Afghanistan, including 66,000 Americans. By February, the American presence will be reduced to 34,000 and the NATO force will be halved. Dunford said withdrawal plans are on track.
If the U.S. does not sign the security deal, it is unlikely that NATO or any of its allies will keep troops in Afghanistan after 2014. Germany has already said that its offer to keep hundreds of trainers in Afghanistan was contingent on American and other soldiers being part of the training mission.
Talks on the deal were suspended by Karzai in June over the opening of a Taliban office in the Gulf state of Qatar.
Those U.S.-sponsored talks foundered before they even began when the Taliban marked the opening of its office with the flag, anthem and symbols of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan -- the group's name when they ruled the country. Karzai immediately pulled the plug on talks saying the office had all the trappings of an embassy of a government in exile.
"Eventually I believe there has to be a political solution to the conflict and it doesn't surprise me that peace talks have been difficult. We are trying to reconcile two groups that have been at war now really for 10 years, and one group that oppressed the Afghan people for 10 years prior to that time. So we are dealing with 20 years of history here as we try to resolve or reconcile the Taliban and the Afghan people," Dunford said.
Dunford also said that the fledgling Afghan army and police forces, which took the lead for security around the country two months ago, will be able to stand up against the insurgency as Taliban gear up for increased attacks following the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
But, he added, the 352,000-strong force will still need training and mentoring after foreign combat troops leave at the end of 2014.
"The fact is that on June 18 we did hand over full responsibility for security across the country to the Afghan forces. They have proven resilient. We know what the Taliban decided to do this summer, trying to seize terrain, trying to conduct high profile attacks, trying to conduct insider attacks, but mostly to crush the spirit and will of the Afghan forces, and they certainly have not been able to that," Dunford said at his military headquarters in downtown Kabul.
Dunford, who took command of international forces in February, added that Afghanistan will also need help after 2014 to counter extremist threats similar to the ones that led the U.S. to invade Afghanistan to rout al-Qaida following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on America.