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America’s top military commander in Afghanistan delivered a grim prediction Wednesday, warning that if all U.S. troops are forced to withdraw from the country at the end of this year, the security situation there would deteriorate and the U.S. would be abandoning the Afghan people and handing al Qaeda a victory.

Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, commander of the international military coalition, told the Senate Armed Services committee Wednesday that without some level of U.S. military assistance beyond 2014, Afghanistan would be unable to support and sustain its military and security forces in the ongoing battle with the Taliban and against al Qaeda.

Dunford warned if the U.S. withdraws, Afghan security forces and the security environment “will deteriorate.”

The only question, he said, is how fast.

“Withdrawing means abandoning the Afghan people,” Dunford said, “and providing Al Qaeda the space to resume (terrorist) operations.”

Dunford told lawmakers that the constant U.S. military presence and pressure has forced al Qaeda into “survival mode,” unable to carry out terrorist attacks. But if all coalition forces are withdrawn, al Qaeda would declare “victory” and use the withdrawal as a recruiting tool.

President Obama has ordered the Pentagon to draw up plans for a total withdrawal of all American forces at the end of the year, if the Afghan government fails to provide a security agreement that would protect U.S. troops beyond 2014. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign a bilateral security agreement, but Dunford said he is optimistic that upcoming presidential elections will produce a successor who would likely sign the agreement by the end of summer. He warned, however, that the clock is ticking.

There are currently nearly 34,000 U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan. A bilateral security agreement would give the U.S. the option of leaving as many as 8,000 there after this year.

If no agreement is signed by September, the U.S. military will be forced to begin a complete withdrawal.

—Jim Miklaszewski