Afghanistan shows need for U.S. to give S.Korea control of troops, lawmaker says

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FILE PHOTO: Members of South Korea and U.S. Special forces take part in a joint military exercise conducted by South Korean and U.S. special forces troops at Gunsan Air Force base in Gunsan

By Josh Smith and Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) - The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan underscores the need for South Korea to quickly secure wartime operational control of its troops from the United States, a leader of the ruling Democratic Party said on Wednesday.

The defeat of the Afghan government after the withdrawal of U.S. forces has sparked debate over the strength of American commitments in places such as Taiwan and South Korea.

Since the 1950-1953 Korean War, the American military has retained authority to control hundreds of thousands of South Korean forces alongside the roughly 28,500 U.S. troops in the country if another war breaks out.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has made obtaining "operational control," or OPCON, of those joint forces a major goal of his administration, but delays over the COVID-19 pandemic and other issues, appear to have made that impossible in its remaining term.

"We have to take the Afghanistan crisis as a chance to strengthen self-defence capability through OPCON transfer," Song Young-gil, a lawmaker who serves as chief of Moon's Democratic Party, said in the title of a Facebook posting.

Asked about the effect the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan could have on the South Korea-U.S. alliance, an official of the presidential Blue House said it was carefully monitoring and considering the Afghan crisis, but did not elaborate.

In Washington, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told a briefing on Tuesday that President Joe Biden had no intent to withdraw troops from South Korea and Europe.

South Korea's Song said the two countries' alliance was necessary to not just counter North Korea but maintain the balance of power and peace in northeast Asia.

"But we also need to have the attitude to foster cooperative self-defence, that we defend our country ourselves, which is why we have to take over wartime OPCON transfer as soon as possible," he added.

Song's post took aim at a Twitter message by U.S. columnist Marc Thiessen on Monday comparing South Korea to Afghanistan, saying if it "were under this kind of sustained assault, they would collapse just as quickly without U.S. support."

The lawmaker said it was slanderous to compare South Korea's advanced military and economy to Afghanistan, adding that the South was well equipped to counter impoverished North Korea.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also cited South Korea as an example of how a longer U.S. troop commitment could have helped in Afghanistan.

In an op-ed article in the Washington Post on Wednesday she argued the U.S. presence was an "admission that even the sophisticated South Korean army cannot deter the North alone."

(Reporting by Josh Smith and Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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