U.S. forces need to stay in Afghanistan after the end of the year to defend the coalition's recent progress, a top Defense Department official said Tuesday evening.
"Afghanistan has moved forward quite a bit.… The Afghanistan security forces are in charge. They are providing security for the nation," Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army chief of staff, said Tuesday evening at a Council on Foreign Relations event. "What they are not ready to do—their institutions are not yet mature enough to sustain this over the long time."
Odierno recently returned from Afghanistan, but he said he didn't meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai while he was there. U.S. and NATO officials have led a public campaign to get the Afghan president to sign a bilateral security agreement for U.S. military involvement in the country after 2014.
Defense Department officials are recommending that the United States leave 10,000 troops in Afghanistan after this year—approximately the number the United States offered to leave in Iraq.
But Odierno echoed comments made at a congressional hearing Tuesday morning, saying that the two countries face different challenges. Iraq, he said, had a better economy but was at a greater threat for sectarian violence.
"The bigger threat to [Afghanistan] is that the Taliban would come back and try to take the government back," he said.
Odierno's comments come as a bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation last week pressing for Congress to be able to vote on whether the United States should keep troops in Afghanistan after 2014.
The Army official also touched on the U.S. shift to the Asia-Pacific, reiterating that despite criticism from members of Congress and other governments, the military is serious about the rebalance.
"I think that they're watching very carefully, and they're watching to see what we do," he said.