ARLINGTON, Va. -- The size and scope of the American troop presence left in Afghanistan after 2014 will largely depend on the fledgling security forces' performance this summer, the top U.S. general there said Friday, hours after announcing that Afghan troops are now taking the lead for security operations.
The U.S. will likely release the number of troops that will stay behind by the fall, said Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, commander of the International Security Assistance Force, via conference call from Kabul Tuesday morning. Dunford says he will be able to make a recommendation to the president at that time.
"We're not ready to make a decision right now," he said.
Until then, coalition forces are working to train up the Afghan security forces' ability to fight for themselves while sustaining between 100 and 120 killed-in-action per week. Improvised explosive devices and inexperience among commanders are largely the cause of these casualties, Dunford says, and also the focus of coalition training efforts.
Military commanders have also pointed to the Afghan air forces, still in their infancy, that provide the key lifeline for troops wounded in action. On this point, a double standard is growing between the local and international forces.
"We are confident that we can provide [Afghans] with the close air support they need to be successful in the campaign," Dunford said. "That doesn't mean that we have sufficient capacity to provide all the military support that the Afghans would want."
He stressed, however, that ISAF is maintaining medical evacuations for coalition troops, and are able to maintain the initial "golden hour" for transportation that dramatically increases the chances of survival for wounded.
Coalition forces are now only conducting security operations, road-clearing and counter-IED missions and taking down U.S. bases. There are now 123 U.S. installations in Afghanistan, down from a peak of roughly 800.
One of the main indicators for the success of the war in Afghanistan may rest on new peace negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban, which Dunford calls encouraging.
Taliban representatives planned to release a statement later on Tuesday from Doha, Qatar, stating they support the peace process and denounce the use of Afghanistan as a base for international terrorist operations, according to a senior White House official.
The Taliban will open a political office in Doha to conduct the peace talks.
"Given the level of distrust among Afghans, it's going to be a slow process to get that dialogue, that intra-Afghan dialogue moving," a White House official said Tuesday. "The talks are largely going to be paced by the success or failure in that dialogue, and so I wouldn't be looking for early results."
The talks are predicated on the Taliban agreeing to cease fighting and accept the Afghan constitution, including protections for women and minorities, and that they agree to direct negotiations with the Afghan government, the White House says.