By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Aug. 8, 2013 – The NATO-led effort in Afghanistan is “in the red zone,” and now is the time to carry the ball over the goal line, the commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force said today.
Speaking via satellite from the Afghan capital of Kabul, Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., delivered a decidedly upbeat report to the Reserve Officers Association’s national security symposium here today.
Dunford said he is pleased with the campaign plan and that the Afghan forces, which took over lead security responsibility in June, have fought well. Afghanistan, he said, now “has the opportunity to be successful.”
With nearly 352,000 members of the Afghan national security forces in place, the general said, the Afghans are demonstrating for all to see that they can handle the load. All Americans need to understand this, he added.
Dunford said he is concerned about a recent poll which shows that 67 percent of Americans believe the war in Afghanistan has not been worth fighting, and that 43 percent believe all U.S. forces should come home next year.
“We still have 60,000 men and women in uniform in harm’s way, and the American people need to understand why they are here, what they are doing and what they are trying to accomplish,” he said.
Americans need to remember that the 9/11 terrorists planned and funded their operation in Afghanistan, the general told the symposium audience. The United States sent forces into Afghanistan to end that, he added, and the idea of keeping Americans safe has not changed over the past decade.
The United States must keep pressure on al-Qaida and other terrorist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Dunford said. He acknowledged that despite coalition successes, al-Qaida and other groups are resilient.
U.S. and NATO troops are needed in Afghanistan today to keep the pressure on these groups, Dunford said, but in the future, the hammer against these terrorists will be Afghan forces.
“Over the past few years, Afghan forces have become increasingly competent, capable and credible,” Dunford said, adding that in his opinion, Afghan forces are providing security for the Afghan people today. They will be able to secure the April 5 presidential elections, he said, and they will be able -- with some qualifications -- to shoulder the entire security burden when the ISAF mission in Afghanistan ends on Dec. 31, 2014.
The surge of coalition forces into Afghanistan created the space for the Afghan forces to grow and mature, Dunford said. Today, he added, NATO and partner-nation forces have transitioned to a “train, advise and assist” mode.
Dunford described an operation in Logar province that used Afghan forces from two separate corps and an Afghan division. The fledgling Afghan air force also participated, airlifting 250 Afghan infantrymen into position and keeping them resupplied.
“The only coalition support was close-air support,” the general said. “This doesn’t reflect what we’re seeing everywhere, but it shows what can be done.”
Noting that perception is important, the general said that some 90 percent of Afghans rate their security situations as fair to good. “Ninety-one percent of Afghans have a favorable opinion of the Afghan army, and 80 percent have a favorable opinion of the Afghan police,” he said.
The real problem today is uncertainty, Dunford said. “There is a growing sense in Kabul that December 2014 is actually a cliff for the Afghan people,” he explained. “It affects the leaders, it affects civil society, and it affects the ranks of the Afghan security forces.”
A bilateral security agreement between the United States and Afghanistan is necessary to eliminate this uncertainty, the general said. This will allow not only Afghans, but also NATO and partner-nations, to plan for the future. He noted that Germany, Italy, Turkey and the United States already have agreed to a post-2014 role. What those roles will be, he added, remains to be determined.
Winning means setting the conditions for the Afghans to exploit opportunities while developing the Afghan forces and sustaining them, Dunford told the audience. This can be done, he added.
“It is by no means inevitable, but it is achievable,” Dunford said. “If the trajectory that we’ve been on for the past couple of years continues for the next 16 months, I am very comfortable about where we will be with the Afghan forces.”