By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Dec. 19, 2013 – The United States is still at war, and DOD leaders will continue to focus on Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said today.
Both recently returned from visiting U.S. and allied forces there, with Hagel also visiting leaders in neighboring Pakistan.
At a year-end Pentagon news conference today, Hagel and Dempsey praised the great job American service members are doing under challenging conditions, and expressed sorrow for six U.S. troops killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan Tuesday. “We have a responsibility to all those who serve in Afghanistan today and all who have sacrificed there for more than 12 years, especially those who gave their lives and their limbs, and their families,” Hagel said.
Both called for Afghan leaders to sign the bilateral security agreement “promptly” as Hagel put it, to allow American and allied officials time to plan and preserve options for a post-2014 presence.
Dempsey brought USO volunteers to meet with service members during his journey through Afghanistan, Greece, Italy and Germany. He said the trip reinforced his pride and confidence in U.S. service members as they continue to perform magnificently after 12 years of war. “We do ask much of our men and women in uniform; we will continue to ask much of them,” he said.
The withdrawal of personnel and equipment from Afghanistan is a complex undertaking, and one that is complicated by Pakistanis blockading the Torkham Gate – one of the major supply lines into and out of the country. “Continuing challenges with our ground lines of communication in Pakistan is but one example of the need to gain certainty now regarding our post-2014 presence,” Hagel said.
“We have options to the north. We have another route to the south. We do use air now,” Hagel said. “But as we all know, air is a lot more expensive. And we’re still moving on a couple of other ground lines.”
Dempsey has no doubt that American logisticians can accomplish the mission. “We’ll get it done,” he said. “It may be more expensive if this persists. We’re engaged with our Pakistani partners, but it won’t affect … the way we operate, nor the way we retrograde.”
Reporters asked Dempsey about reports alleging that Afghan security forces have brokered local deals with the Taliban. “This is exactly why we need the (bilateral security agreement) to be signed,” the general said. “What hangs in the balance, the longer the BSA is unresolved, is the confidence of the people of Sangin questioning whether we’re going to actually be there for them and continue to allow the (Afghan national security forces) to develop so that it can counter the Taliban’s influence.”
Afghan forces are capable, he said. In almost every instance they are capable of overwhelming their Taliban foes but they need logistics, intelligence, signals and transportation help. Developing this will make the force an institution.
“But they're not confident yet,” Dempsey said. “They've only been at this by themselves for about a year. And think about what they've got facing them in the -- in the first half of 2014, a political transition. Then it will take some period of time for them to seat their government and have it functioning. If they have a single shortcoming right now, it is confidence, and the BSA will give them confidence. I can say that with great certainty.”