The top general overseeing U.S. forces in the Middle East, including Afghanistan, says the Obama administration is working with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on keeping special forces present in a key province of the central Asian country.
American forces in Afghanistan suffered a severe blow in February when Karzai announced that all U.S. Special Forces must withdraw from Wardak Province within two weeks, a key access point to neighboring Kabul where locals complained of the commandos' treatment of detainees.
Marine Gen. James Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command, hinted Tuesday that these forces may not pull out of the region.
"That issue is being worked right now. It is not operant right now," he said. "Obviously we would be reluctant to see our forces not able to operate there right now."
The White House and Afghan leadership are currently negotiating the presence of American special operations troops there.
"It's not just reversing [Karzai's order], it's crafting how best we operate in Wardak Province," said Mattis.
He also recommended leaving roughly a fifth of the current troop levels in the region after the U.S. draws down its Afghan presence in 2014.
Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday he had recommended to President Barack Obama leaving 13,600 Americans in Afghanistan after 2014. The White House announced earlier this year its plans to withdraw at least 34,000 of the current 66,000 troops by the end of 2013.
"Our mission is succeeding. The Afghan campaign is on track," Mattis said, while testifying before the committee with Navy Adm. William McRaven, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command.
Afghan National Security Forces are "proving themselves capable" to defend their own country, the general said, despite reports that only one of 23 local combat brigades are capable of operating without coalition advisors. "I think we may need to re-look at how we're measuring them."
"We are continuing to see them mature," he added. "At the current rate of maturation, they are actually quite impressive" in their ability to operate against enemies.
Just under 200 ANSF troops have been killed in action since the beginning of the year, versus only four coalition deaths.
"It is not opinion, it is fact, that Afghans are doing the bulk of the fighting, and they're doing it with our support," he said.
Afghan troop levels should remain around the current levels of 352,000 following the U.S. draw down, Mattis said, adding the Taliban has "very little reason for comfort."