Lt. Gen. David Barno

Lt. Gen. David Barno (Charles Coon / S&S)

GARMISCH, Germany — U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan should remain steady at about 18,000 this year, and troops could be stationed there until they aren’t wanted, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan said Thursday.

Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, commander of Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan, noted that Afghan President Hamid Karzai won the election in October while campaigning on a pro-U.S. military platform.

“[Karzai] told voters, ‘If you vote for me, you are voting for a long-term partnership with the Americans,’” Barno said in an interview with Stars and Stripes. “Now he feels he has a mandate among his people to have a long-term relationship. What that [relationship] is going to look like, I don’t know.”

“We hear all the time that the Afghans are more concerned about the Americans abandoning them than they are about Americans overstaying their welcome.”

He said he didn’t know if the United States would establish permanent military bases in Afghanistan similar to the U.S. garrisons currently in Germany and other European countries. In addition to 18,000 U.S. troops, the Kabul-based International Security Assistance Force of troops, mostly from NATO-member nations, numbers about 8,900.

Barno was in Garmisch this week for a conference among military and diplomatic leaders from Afghanistan, Pakistan and the former Soviet nations to their north.

The United States invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, one month after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, to chase down members of the al-Qaida group, which organized the attack, as well as to topple the Taliban regime that was sympathetic to al-Qaida.

In the past year, the roles of many U.S. troops in Afghanistan have changed, Barno said.

Nineteen provincial reconstruction teams, or PRTs, which include some run by NATO forces, have been established throughout the sprawling nation. The key to their success, Barno said, was that troops have stayed in regions long enough to become known and trusted by the locals.

The teams range in size from 50-500 troops and perform a variety of missions, including construction, meeting with mullahs and elders, intelligence gathering and security. He said the PRTs are light, but not lightweight.

“These are combat forces,” Barno said. “People well know they have artillery and direct-fire capability, and that air power could [arrive] in 20 minutes.

“No one is confused that those units don’t have a lot of capability. Our air power allows us to work platoon-sized, 40-man groups all over the country, very small groups instead of 100-man or 800-man groups,” he said.

That quick-strike capability lets the U.S. military cover a country about the size of Iraq, with about the same population as Iraq, with 18,000 troops instead of 10 times that number, he said.

When Karzai was elected in October, an 800-soldier battalion from the 82nd Airborne Division was brought into Afghanistan for several weeks to provide additional security.

The election went off fairly smooth, and while Barno said it’s possible that reinforcement troops could be brought in to help secure local and regional elections in the spring, he expected those elections to succeed as well.

“Whatever opinion people had before [Oct. 9, when Karzai was elected president], the enemy had no impact on the election,” Barno said. “The security situation continues to improve.

“There are going to be setbacks, but there is no reason they can’t have the next elections on time from a security standpoint.”

Other goals of the Karzai government, in which the U.S. troops would continue playing a role, include the stripping of power of local warlords and diminishing the booming poppy trade. Poppy plants are used to make heroin.

American forces will continue to support Afghan troops fighting the drug war by providing close-air support and medical evacuations, Barno said, but are not scheduled to become involved in eradicating the poppy fields.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now