By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Nov. 15, 2012 – Declaring the U.S. and coalition goals in Afghanistan “within reach,” President Barack Obama’s nominee to take command of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, told the Senate Armed Services Committee today he’ll work to complete a successful security transition there if confirmed.
“I recognize that much work remains to be done, and the challenges will be many,” Dunford, the current assistant Marine Corps commandant, told the Senate panel. He acknowledged, for example, the need to address terrorist safe havens in Pakistan and the rearming of militias in Afghanistan -- a development Dunford said “would absolutely have an adverse effect on stability.”
The general also cited corruption in Afghanistan, calling it “the most significant strategic challenge to success” there.
“But with continued focus and commitment, I believe our goals are achievable,” Dunford said. “If confirmed, I look forward to working closely with our partners to overcome the challenges to meet our objectives and to make certain our shared sacrifices matter.
“If confirmed, I also look forward to the opportunity to lead our young men and women in Afghanistan,” he continued. “And I will do all I can to ensure they have the wherewithal to accomplish the mission and return home to their families.”
Reporting on his recent visit to Afghanistan, Dunford said he was impressed by the impact of NATO Training Mission Afghanistan in developing the Afghan national security forces. “I really believe over the last 18 months that their performance has significantly improved as a result of the training being provided by NTMA,” he said.
Dunford recalled his first trip to Afghanistan, in 2008, when coalition forces outnumbered trained Afghan national security forces 10 to 1. Those Afghan forces “had very little training and very poor equipment,” he said.
The timeline for growing the force to 352,000 members has slipped slightly, but the general said all the troops have been recruited and many trained. “My expectation, based on my recent visit, is that training will be completed by early 2013,” he said.
Dunford said he found the transformation among these troops encouraging, noting that they now provide security for 76 percent of all Afghans. “We have actually had corps-level operations in Regional Command South, planned and executed by the Afghans alone,” he said. “From my perspective today, the Afghans have the capability, with the support we are providing, to provide security.”
With this progress, and continued coalition support, “I believe the Afghan national security forces will be able to meet the security requirements in Afghanistan,” he said.
Once on the job, Dunford said, he will make a formal assessment of their capabilities and capacities with three major milestones in mind: the transition to full Afghan security lead in 2013, successful Afghan elections in 2014, and a smooth transition there in December 2014.
If confirmed, Dunford said, he will evaluate current plans for drawing down the remaining 68,000 troops in Afghanistan. Weighing that against conditions on the ground and the Afghan national security forces’ capabilities, he said, he hopes to gauge exactly what type and size force the United States will need to meet its objectives.
“As I make a recommendation, I will look at the strength of the enemy,” he said. “I will look at the capabilities and capacities of the Afghan national security forces, judge the capability and capacity of the coalition forces and then make a recommendation on what our force contribution ought to be between now and 2014, and then beyond as we go into the decade of transformation.”
In the meantime, Dunford emphasized the need for a clear, compelling and consistent signal the United States’ and the coalition’s long-term commitment to Afghanistan.
One key measure will be a bilateral security agreement between the United States and Afghanistan, being discussed today in the Afghan capital of Kabul. That agreement will provide details involved in implementing the strategic partnership agreement the two countries signed in May and underscores U.S. resolve in Afghanistan beyond 2014, Dunford said.
Dunford expressed hope that the bilateral security agreement will be completed by May 2013, as specified in the strategic partnership agreement.
“I believe the bilateral security agreement will … create momentum on the strategic side,” he said. Dunford noted that other coalition members are likely to enter into their own bilateral security agreements with Afghanistan once the United States and Afghanistan establish one.
This demonstration of commitment will boost confidence across the board, Dunford said, with a positive effect on day-to-day operations the coalition is conducting.
“I think it is the question of confidence in the Afghan people that we are going to remain, confidence in the Afghan national security forces that we will remain, confidence in the capitals of the coalition that we will remain and frankly, confidence in regional actors, as well, that we will remain,” he said.
“That is what I believe is the most important effect of the bilateral security agreement: that clear and compelling narrative that not only are we there now, but we intend to see this through to transition in 2014 and we also intend to, in accordance with our agreements in Chicago and Tokyo, see through the decade of transformation that needs to follow in 2014,” the general told the panel.
That signal will reverberate throughout the region, Dunford said, and with every country that has an interest in Afghanistan: the 49 coalition members, Iran and other nearby nations, Russia and China, among them.
It also will send a clear message to Pakistan, he said. “I believe Pakistan hedges its bets based on what they believe our long-term commitment to the region would be,” Dunford said. “And their calculus will be changed as a result of their knowing that we are not only going to be there through December 2014, but we will be there beyond December 2014 to secure our national objectives.”
Today’s confirmation hearing originally was to include both Dunford and Allen, who has been nominated as NATO’s supreme allied commander in Europe and commander of U.S. European Command. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta asked Congress earlier this week to delay Allen’s confirmation hearing until the Pentagon inspector general completes an investigation.
The Senate panel today shared the high confidence both Panetta and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have expressed in Allen, as well as Dunford’s ability to take on the mission in Afghanistan.
“[Dunford] is an exceptionally gifted strategic leader,” the secretary said as he announced Dunford’s nomination at a NATO defense ministers conference in October. “He is combat-tested. He believes in ISAF, and if confirmed, will be an extraordinary leader of it.”
Dempsey echoed that sentiment as Dunford’s nomination was announced.
“Intelligent and forthright, General Dunford is one of our most highly-regarded senior officers. He is an infantry officer with more than 35 years of exceptional leadership at every level, including multiple commands and, in particular, command of 5th Marine Regiment during the initial invasion of Iraq,” Dempsey said.
“Clearly, Joe has the right mix of personal and professional qualities,” the chairman added. “His military expertise and high character will guide the ISAF coalition through the next critical phase. I am fully confident he is the right leader to secure an effective transition between ISAF and the Afghan national security forces.”