By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
May 5, 2010 - The Pentagon's top policy official told Congress today she's "cautiously optimistic" about progress in Afghanistan as the new strategy there begins to show signs of success. "I believe we are achieving success. We are on the right road for the first time in a long time in Afghanistan," Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy told the House Armed Services Committee. "I would argue for the first time, we finally have the right mission, the right strategy, the right leadership team in place. And we have marshaled both the international and Afghan resources, civilian and military, to support this mission.
"Are we done yet? Absolutely not. Are there more challenges to be dealt with? Yes," Flournoy continued. "But we are on the right path, and things are starting to move in the right direction."
Marine Corps Lt. Gen. John Paxton Jr., operations director for the Joint Staff, echoed Flournoy's appraisal.
"We are starting to see conditions that we believe are necessary for success in Afghanistan," he said. "Among the most important of these conditions is having the right leadership and strategy in place."
Flournoy cited progress in the troop surge to support that strategy. Nearly half of the 30,000 additional U.S. forces committed to the mission are on the ground, with the rest to arrive by late August. In addition, NATO and other coalition partners have pledged 9,000 additional troops to support the mission.
Flournoy noted other factors contributing to the turnaround. These include changes in coalition tactics to reduce civilian casualties, intensified partnerships to promote the development of Afghan national security forces, and more nonmilitary assets on the ground focused on economic and political development.
"The administration's core goal in the region is to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida and ensure the elimination of al-Qaida safe havens," she said. "A critical component of our strategy is a stable Afghanistan with the governance and capacity to ensure that Afghanistan can no longer be a safe haven for al-Qaida and insurgents."
She cited shared interests between the United States and Afghanistan that extend beyond combating violent extremism. "We are working to develop an enduring partnership that will serve both our nations for many years to come," she said.
The situation in Afghanistan was "pretty bleak" before President Barack Obama sent 38,000 additional troops there last spring, then ordered Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's assessment last summer, she conceded.
Paxton told the committee that McChrystal's campaign plan, based on that assessment, is built on four requirements. It aims to protect the Afghan people, enable Afghan security forces, neutralize malign influences and support the extension of governments, he said.
"General McChrystal has gone to great lengths to ensure that all of our operations in Afghanistan ... are directly tied to achieving these aims," Paxton said.
Flournoy pointed to the International Security Assistance Force and Afghan national security force partnership during operations in Helmand – "the first large-scale effort to fundamentally change how we are doing business together -- as a sign of how much things have changed under this strategy.
"Preparations for the Helmand operation included extraordinary levels of civil-military planning and engagement with the Afghan partners at every level," she said. "And we feel that the collaborative operational planning process was critical to giving Afghans a sense of ownership and investment in the success of our joint efforts."
Operations in Kandahar will present fundamentally different challenges, she said, and will require coalition forces to adapt to changing conditions.
"I don't want to suggest that achieving success in Afghanistan will be simple or easy. Far from it," Flournoy emphasized. "Inevitably we'll face challenges, possibly setbacks, even as we achieve success. We need to recognize that things may get harder before they get better."
As the coalition confronts the insurgency in new ways, the enemy can be expected to find new ways to respond. "To maintain our momentum, we will need to continuously refine and adapt our own tactics," she said.
Flournoy expressed confidence that the elements required for them to succeed are in place and taking shape.
"Afghanistan is our No. 1 priority," she said. "General McChrystal knows that he can ask for what he needs. The president has given the secretary of defense [authority] to provide for additional forces, particularly for force protection as needed. And as we move forward, we will continue to refine our approach, and I believe we will continue to make progress."