Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford / Manuel Balce Ceneta, AP
KABUL - Afghanistan's armed forces have matured into a force capable of defeating the Taliban on the battlefield, but sustaining the momentum will depend on a stable government transition after a contested election, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford said.
"The key to the Afghan forces next summer is political transition," said Dunford, who completed an 18-month tour Tuesday as the top coalition commander.
The country remains mired in political uncertainty as officials audit voting results from a runoff election in June amid accusations of fraud by both sides.
Afghan security forces, which have been leading combat operations for more than a year, have performed effectively, securing two rounds of voting, then battling Taliban forces that attempted this summer to take advantage of the political uncertainty by launching a wave of attacks throughout the country.
"As we went through political stalemate, we lost a little bit of the wind in our sails," Dunford said. "The Taliban took advantage of that."
"They were looking for a place to actually get a psychological victory, to reinforce the pessimism that followed the second round of elections," Dunford said.
Afghan security forces took back the momentum from the Taliban this summer and put "the enemy back on its heels," Dunford said.
Dunford spoke hours after a ceremony in which he turned over command of the coalition force to Army Gen. John Campbell. Dunford has been confirmed as the next commandant of the Marine Corps.
The performance of the Afghan security forces has instilled confidence and earned support among the population, Dunford said.
"We are at the point in the campaign when it's all about the psychological factors," Dunford said.
"It is an entirely different force than it was two or three years ago," he said.
The political turmoil threatens plans to leave a force of 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after this year. The force would be designed to advise and assist Afghan security forces and conduct counterterrorism missions.
U.S. military leaders say the Afghans are effective fighters but need help in building systems for sustaining a force in the field and for supply and maintenance, training facilities and other support functions.
"The Afghan security forces are very good fighters," Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said. "They don't need us to do that for them."
Washington has said U.S. troops would remain after this year only if the Afghan government signs a security agreement with the United States, providing a framework for the residual force.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who often had a rocky relationship with the United States, refused to sign the agreement. Both candidates to replace him, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, have expressed support for the agreement, although it is unclear when a new president will be inaugurated and be in a position to sign the agreement.
"We've been very clear that without (an agreement) that our continued presence wouldn't be possible," Dempsey said.
"They do have institutional level and systemic issues that have to be addressed going forward, which is why the BSA (Bilateral Security Agreement) in my view is so important," Dempsey said.
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