War on Terrorism

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Defense Officials Cite Progress, Challenges in Afghanistan

By Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service

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."

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