By Nick Simeone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Mar. 6, 2014 – If U.S. and NATO forces are required to leave Afghanistan at the end of the year in the absence of a security agreement, the Afghan government’s long-term viability “is likely to be at high risk,” the commander of U.S. Central Command told Congress yesterday.
Of all the conflicts and security issues on his watch, Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III told the House Armed Services Committee, operations in Afghanistan remain his top priority -- in particular, ensuring that the progress achieved during America’s longest war is not lost.
But despite repeated urgings by U.S. officials, Afghan President Hamid Karzai refuses to sign a bilateral security agreement negotiated with the United States that would allow for a continued post-2014 U.S. military presence to train and advise Afghan forces and to conduct counterterror operations, a presence Austin described as being vitally important to Afghanistan’s future.
“We have invested lives and other precious resources to improve security and stability in that country,” he said. “Going forward, we want to do all that we can to preserve those hard earned gains,” among them, an Afghan security force numbering nearly 344,000 and leading nearly all security operations in the country.
“If the United States and Afghanistan are unable to achieve a BSA, we will move rapidly to consider alternatives for continuing a security cooperation relationship with Afghanistan,” Austin told the committee in prepared testimony.
Ultimately, he added, Afghanistan’s future will be in the hands of the Afghans themselves, with an important milestone being national elections set for next month.
“If the Afghan leadership does not make the right decisions going forward, the opportunities they have been afforded could easily be squandered,” the general said.
Austin’s testimony covered the range of issues and threats facing the United States across the Middle East and South Asia, including the civil war in Syria, which he called the most difficult challenge he has faced in his nearly 40-year military career. The conflict, which has claimed several hundred thousand lives, has reached a “dynamic stalemate,” Austin told the House panel, with neither President Bashar Assad’s government nor rebels fighting to topple him able to achieve their objectives.
In addition to creating regional instability, the flow of foreign fighters into the country, which Austin put at upwards of 7,000, remains a concern, given that many of them will eventually return home. And while Assad pledged last year to turn over his stockpile of chemical weapons, Austin said, the Syrian government has missed milestones for their removal and destruction.
In neighboring Iraq, Austin described a security situation that has deteriorated significantly, with levels of violence reaching those seen at the height of sectarian conflict in 2006 to 2008.
“The principal cause of the growing instability has been the Shiia-led government’s lack of meaningful reform and inclusiveness of minority Sunni and Kurds,” the general said, adding that the situation is exacerbated by the active presence of al-Qaida and a steady influx of jihadists from the war in Syria.
The United States has expanded security cooperation with Baghdad by supplying the government with small arms, rockets and Hellfire missiles, Austin said, but it is going to take “major internal political reform and the sincere inclusion of the Sunnis and Kurds into the political process” to make a significant difference in levels of violence.
In Iran, Austin cited progress in negotiations over halting the country’s nuclear program, but said significant concerns remain about the behavior of the Iranian government. “We are seeing a significant increase in Iranian proxy activity in Syria, principally through Iran’s support of Lebanese Hezbollah and the regime,” he said.
In Egypt, Austin said, the interim government, despite making some strides toward more democratic and inclusive rule, has yet to take up the dire economic problems affecting the country. Still, he said, the United States will continue to work with the Egyptian military to advance mutual security interests.
Overall, while the United States has made progress in countering terrorism in the region, Austin said, al-Qaida and its affiliates continue to pose the most significant threat to the United States and its allies. The region’s explosion of unemployed young people demanding political change and increased opportunity, combined with increasing ethnic and sectarian violence, continue to drive instability and recruitment by terrorists, he said, creating what he called “underlying currents” that may not be possible to halt or reverse.