Afghanistan — Defense Officials Cite Progress, Challenges in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON, June 15, 2010 — U.S. and inter­na­tion­al forces are mak­ing progress in south­ern Afghanistan despite a tough and resource­ful insur­gency, defense offi­cials told Con­gress today.

Under­sec­re­tary of Defense for Pol­i­cy Michele Flournoy and U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand com­man­der Army Gen. David H. Petraeus tes­ti­fied before the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee. They cit­ed the need to con­tin­ue work­ing toward Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s goal to begin a respon­si­ble draw­down of U.S. troops in Afghanistan by July 2011.

Petraeus took ill dur­ing the ques­tion-and-answer por­tion of the hear­ing, which he blamed on dehy­dra­tion. By that point, he had deliv­ered his open­ing state­ment to the pan­el. He returned about 30 min­utes lat­er and offered to con­tin­ue, but the com­mit­tee sus­pend­ed the ses­sion until tomor­row.

“July 2011 is not the date where we race for the exits; it is the date where, hav­ing done an assess­ment, we begin a process of tran­si­tion of tasks to Afghan secu­ri­ty forces, based on con­di­tions and begin a process of a, quote, ‘respon­si­ble draw­down of our forces,’ ” Petraeus said just before he appeared to faint, refer­ring to Obama’s Decem­ber speech to U.S. Mil­i­tary Acad­e­my cadets in West Point, N.Y. “That is the pol­i­cy, and I sup­port it. I sup­port the pol­i­cy of the pres­i­dent.”

In his open­ing state­ment, Petraeus not­ed that of the 30,000 addi­tion­al troops Oba­ma direct­ed be sent to Afghanistan, near­ly 21,000 are already there. The deploy­ment is slight­ly ahead of sched­ule, he added, not­ing that by August, almost all of those forces will be in coun­try.

Mean­while, efforts also are on track to increase the size and capa­bil­i­ty of Afghanistan’s sol­diers and police, Petraeus said. More than 231,000 Afghans make up their secu­ri­ty forces today, near­ly 80,000 more than what filled the ranks a year ago. Gains in recruit­ing and reduced attri­tion are appar­ent, he said, but much work still is required to sus­tain that progress as well as in devel­op­ing Afghan mil­i­tary lead­ers.

Set­ting con­di­tions to tran­si­tion secu­ri­ty to the Afghans is “cen­tral to achiev­ing progress,” Petraeus added, cit­ing improve­ments made in the U.S.-Afghan forces’ part­ner­ship. “Con­sid­er­able progress is made in get­ting the con­cepts right, for devel­op­ing the ANSF, and also in devel­op­ing the struc­tures need­ed to imple­ment those con­cepts,” he said.

Petraeus also not­ed the gains being made by increas­ing U.S. civil­ian par­tic­i­pa­tion in Afghanistan projects by mem­bers of the State Depart­ment and the U.S. Agency for Inter­na­tion­al Devel­op­ment. Their con­tri­bu­tions, he said, have allowed for new efforts to occur in “key areas” through­out the coun­try.

Such efforts are ongo­ing in the cen­tral Hel­mand oper­a­tion in Mar­ja, where insur­gent sanc­tu­ar­ies have been seized, but not with­out resis­tance. Focus now is shift­ing to Kan­da­har, where forces will focus on an “inte­grat­ed civ­il-mil­i­tary approach to secu­ri­ty, gov­ern­ment and devel­op­ment,” he said.

“There will be noth­ing easy about any of this,” the gen­er­al said. “Indeed, I not­ed sev­er­al months ago dur­ing my annu­al pos­ture hear­ing that the going was like­ly to get hard­er before it got eas­i­er. That has already been the case, as we have seen recent­ly.”

Yet progress is being made in Afghanistan, Petraeus said.

“So far, we believe we have been mak­ing grad­ual but impor­tant progress,” Flournoy told the Sen­ate pan­el, echo­ing Petraeus. “The coali­tion is con­test­ing the insur­gency more effec­tive­ly in more places and with more forces.”

Flournoy not­ed that the insur­gency “is both resilient and resource­ful,” and that insur­gent activ­i­ty in April and May resumed in Mar­ja and much of cen­tral Hel­mand. How­ev­er, recent insur­gent attacks, she said, indi­cate a “pos­si­ble reduc­tion in some of their oper­a­tional capac­i­ty.”

The per­cent­age of attacks with mul­ti­ple means has steadi­ly dropped since its peak in Feb­ru­ary, Flournoy explained. Also, she added, the aver­age num­ber of casu­al­ties per attack is few­er than 2009 lev­els.

Mean­while, local Afghans in the region have expressed their will­ing­ness to report road­side bombs, weapons and insur­gent activ­i­ty. This, Flournoy said, sug­gests “grow­ing pock­ets of con­fi­dence” among local Afghans and indi­cates their will­ing­ness to sup­port inter­na­tion­al forces and the estab­lish­ment of secu­ri­ty and gov­er­nance.

In turn, she said, the admin­is­tra­tion remains com­mit­ted to the Afghanistan mis­sion and sup­port­ing its peo­ple in a long-term effort.

“As the inter­na­tion­al mil­i­tary pres­ence begins to shift from a com­bat role to an advise-and-assist role, it will be absolute­ly vital to ensure a more robust and long-term inter­na­tion­al civil­ian assis­tance effort focused on capac­i­ty build­ing, gov­er­nance and devel­op­ment,” Flournoy explained. “The U.S. sup­ports an Afghan-led process that seeks to bring back into soci­ety those who cease vio­lence, break ties with al-Qai­da, and live under the Afghan con­sti­tu­tion and all of its require­ments.”

Though the out­come for Afghanistan is far from deter­mined and Obama’s strat­e­gy is only in its ear­ly phas­es, Flournoy said she is con­fi­dent that more progress will be evi­dent by Decem­ber.

“It’s only a mat­ter of months since the president’s announce­ment,” she said. “None of what we are doing in Afghanistan involves quick fix­es. These are long-term prob­lems, and their solu­tions will require patience, per­sis­tence and flex­i­bil­i­ty. But we are mak­ing progress; some­times slow, but we believe, steady.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)