By Army Sgt. 1st Class Tyrone C. Marshall Jr.
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 16, 2013 – Dynamic and compelling commitment from the United States is necessary to confront growing uncertainty in Afghanistan and the region when the International Security Assistance Force mission ends next year, the top commander of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan said today.
“We [must] confront growing uncertainty in Afghanistan and in the region,” Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Many Afghans have told me they no longer fear the Taliban as much as they fear what will happen after 2014.”
One Afghan described it as the “Y2K effect,” Dunford said, alluding to a period of uncertainty late in the 20th century driven by questions of how computer-controlled systems would behave with a complete rollover of the calendar year’s digits on Jan. 1, 2000.
“There is a growing sense that December 2014 is a cliff for the Afghan people,” he added. “[This] dynamic must be addressed with an incredible, compelling narrative of U.S. commitment.”
The general said that in the absence of confidence and hope for a brighter future, Afghan leaders, the Afghan people and regional actors will continue to hedge and plan for the worst case.
The behavior associated with that mindset, Dunford said, has the very real potential to undermine the campaign.
Dunford noted ISAF remains focused on denying safe haven in Afghanistan to the al-Qaida terrorists who attacked the U.S. on 9/11, and denying the Taliban, who harbored them, the ability to overthrow the Afghan government.
“We recognize that our national interest in the region is served by a secure and stable Afghanistan at peace with its neighbors,” he said. “I appear before you this morning confident in the cardinal direction of the campaign. My confidence is based on the very real progress we have made since the surge of forces began in late 2009, and that surge allowed us to move the campaign forward.”
Constant pressure on the remnants of al-Qaida in Afghanistan, he said, has disrupted the terror organization’s ability to plan and conduct operations against the West.
Dunford said coalition and Afghan-partnered operations have pushed the Taliban away from Afghanistan’s populated areas and have prevented them from meeting their campaign objectives in 2012.
“While they remain resilient, they are less of a threat against the Afghan government than they were in 2011,” the general said. “Most significantly, our efforts, since 2009, have provided the Afghan forces the time and space necessary to grow and assume the lead.”
Afghan security forces have recruited and fielded most of their authorized strength of 352,000, Dunford said. “They are leading approximately 80 percent of all combat operations being conducted, and they have the lead security responsibility for territory where nearly 90 percent of the population lives,” he added.
Later this spring, Dunford said, Afghan forces will be completely in the lead for combat operations across the nation, in keeping with agreements at the last two NATO summits. His testimony today comes during an inflection point in the Afghan campaign, the general added, with many reasons to be optimistic and several significant challenges to overcome.
“Up to this point, it’s fair to say we were focused on growing the size of the Afghan security forces,” he said. “We are now focused on improving the quality of the [security forces].”
Dunford said in the months ahead, ISAF will continue to focus on a wide range of issues to include leadership development, ministerial capacity, aviation, and the systems, processes and institutions needed to sustain a modern, professional force.
“We’ll also need to address very real political and psychological factors that will affect the outcome of the campaign,” he said.
Dunford acknowledged “real tension” between increasing aspirations of Afghan sovereignty and the reality of operations conducted in accordance with the U.N. Security Council mandate, the Law of Armed Conflict and the Military Technical Agreement. Properly managing this tension has become a campaign imperative, he said, along with the psychological aspect.
“Psychology will influence the performance of the Afghan forces this summer and affect the critical elections of 2014,” Dunford said.
Dunford told the senators the campaign is in the “decisive phase of transition.”
“The progress we have made to date provides real opportunity, but not inevitability,” he said.
“There will continue to be challenges that will test our will and endurance.
“But in the end,” he continued, “if we define winning as completing political and security transition while rendering al-Qaida operationally ineffective [and] as setting the conditions for the Afghans to exploit a decade of opportunity that will begin in 2015, I firmly believe we can win.”