WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon's top civilian and military officials on Sunday expressed expectations, even a desire, that American troops would remain in Afghanistan after the NATO mission ends in December 2014, although they emphasized that no decision had been made.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the United States would sustain a strategic partnership with Afghanistan, and cited a decision by NATO heads of state during a summit meeting in President Obama's hometown of Chicago that long-term support for Kabul would include military assistance.
"In Chicago, we also said that we're committing to an enduring presence," Mr. Panetta said. "And I believe that the president of the United States is going to do everything possible to implement the Chicago agreements."
During joint appearances on the NBC News program "Meet the Press" and the CNN program "State of the Union," Mr. Panetta and General Dempsey sought to define and defend an 11-year-old mission in Afghanistan whose objectives have become fuzzy in the minds of many Americans, just as Mr. Obama weighs how rapidly to withdraw the remaining troops and considers how many to propose leaving there after 2014.
In advance of a visit to Washington by President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan last month, some White House officials said that leaving no troops behind remained an option -- though some viewed the comments as a negotiating tactic. Any American troop presence after the conclusion of the NATO mandate requires agreement between Kabul and Washington.
Some sticking points remain, including a Defense Department demand for immunity for American service personnel, whose misconduct would be adjudicated under the Pentagon's Uniform Code of Military Justice, not Afghan law. The Departments of Defense and State sought, but failed to secure, a similar agreement to leave a sizable training and advising force in Iraq after the end of combat there.
"No one has ever suggested zero to me," General Dempsey said, referring to the number of postwar troops in Afghanistan, although he stressed that "the decision on numbers hasn't been made yet."
Pressed to define the mission in Afghanistan, General Dempsey said it was "to establish a secure and capable Afghanistan that can govern itself and ensure that Al Qaeda never again establishes a safe haven in that country." He argued that coalition forces have diminished the Taliban's capabilities. "Violence has gone down," he said. "We're also developing an Afghan army that has increased its operational skill to provide security."
Mr. Panetta also expressed confidence that former Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska would be a strong defense secretary, despite a bitterly partisan confirmation hearing last week in which the nominee to succeed Mr. Panetta stumbled over some answers. General Dempsey noted that several important security issues -- like Afghanistan, where 66,000 American troops are at war -- were nearly absent during a full day of Senate questioning of Mr. Hagel.
Mr. Panetta also criticized the agenda pursued by some senators in their questioning of Mr. Hagel. He said, for example, that not enough attention had been paid to the Pentagon budget and what happens if automatic budget cuts -- called sequestration -- go into effect as scheduled on March 1.
He said that if a fiscal deal is not reached to forestall those cuts, then the armed forces would be weakened and less able to respond to global crises.
"There are members up on the Capitol Hill that are saying, 'Oh no, we're going to stand back and let sequester happen,' " Mr. Panetta said. "Let me tell you, if sequester happens, it is going to badly damage the readiness of the United States of America."
He said the type of cuts that would be required under sequestration "will go right at readiness, right at maintenance, right at training. We are gonna weaken the United States and make it much more difficult for us to respond to the crises in the world."
General Dempsey said that sequestration cuts would be only part of the limits on military spending. He noted that the Defense Department is now operating under a continuing resolution on its spending, and he estimated that total cuts in the last half of the fiscal year could reach $52 billion.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.