America's military mission in Afghanistan likely will stretch out at least another 10 years, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said Tuesday.
"My guess is that our engagement in Afghanistan is minimally a decade," Sen. Corker said Tuesday after returning from Afghanistan to observe last week's elections.
That timeline remains steady, he said, even though the anti-American terrorists who provoked the U.S. invasion no longer operate in the country.
"Regardless of the turn of events, we're going to be there for a long, long time," he said.
The U.S. military drove out the al-Qaida forces linked with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks from Afghanistan during 2002. But 57,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines -- along with 44,000 troops from other countries -- continue to battle Taliban insurgents who helped shelter al-Qaida loyalists.
July was the deadliest month for the international forces in Afghanistan since the initial invasion. In just the past four weeks, 64 U.S.-led troops have been killed in Afghanistan, and Sen. Corker said he expects more U.S. casualties.
Among an estimated 2,000 al-Qaida activists around the globe today, none now are suspected of operating in Afghanistan, although at least 500 operate in parts of neighboring Pakistan, Sen. Corker said.
"Today, there may be an al-Qaida operative who is traveling through Afghanistan but, generally speaking, there are no al-Qaida operatives in Afghanistan," Sen. Corker told reporters and editors of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "From the standpoint of our future, the Taliban does not pose a threat to the United States of America. The Taliban is a local organization that is focused on Pakistan and Afghanistan."
Sen. Corker suggested it is impractical for the United States to invade other al-Qaida strongholds in Somalia or Sudan.
"You have to ask the question, what is our end game here?" he asked. "Are we a country that is going to go around the world trying to right all wrongs? We just can't do that but, at this point, I don't know that I have a solution that is better than the direction we are now going."
Sen. Corker, the only U.S. senator to observe last Thursday's elections in Afghanistan, said the United States is having to build the economic and governmental structure of Afghanistan after decades of war and centuries of tribal conflicts in the country.
"We're not going to resolve these tribal differences overnight," Sen. Corker said. "When the president says our mission in Afghanistan is more limited, that is categorically untrue. If nation building has ever occurred in the world, it is occurring in Afghanistan."
The Afghan election commission Tuesday said that President Hamid Karzai and top challenger Abdullah Abdullah both have roughly 40 percent of the nationwide vote for president with 10 percent of polling stations counted. If neither of the leading candidates gets a majority of the vote when the official count is announced next month, the two will face each other in a run-off in early October.
Abdullah has accused Karzai of widespread rigging, including ballot-stuffing and voter intimidation, while Karzai's camp has leveled similar accusations against Abdullah.
Sen. Corker acknowledged he still is unsure of the best future course for the United States in Afghanistan. But he told CNN this week he is willing to support more American troops in Afghanistan if Gen. Stanley McChrystal determines there is a need for a bigger U.S. military presence.
"If nothing else comes out of this conflict, we should remember that, when we put our flag up in a country, that means a lot," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.