By Army Sgt. 1st Class Tyrone C. Marshall Jr.
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 13, 2014 – The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan gave a clear vote of confidence today for Afghanistan’s national security forces, but he noted that an enduring mission will be necessary beyond this year.
Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, testified before the House Armed Services Committee on progress in Afghanistan.
“After watching the Afghan forces respond to a variety of challenges since they took the lead in June, I don’t believe the Taliban insurgency represents an existential threat to them or the government of Afghanistan,” he said. “I’m also confident they can secure the upcoming presidential election in the nation’s first democratic transfer of power.”
To make the progress in Afghanistan enduring, the general said, work remains to build the long-term sustainability of the Afghan forces.
“Although the Afghans require less support in conducting security operations,” Dunford explained, “they still need assistance in maturing the systems, the processes and the institutions necessary to support a modern national army and police force.”
They also need continued support in addressing capability gaps in aviation, intelligence and special operations, he said. “To address these gaps” he added, “a ‘train, advise and assist’ mission will be necessary after this year to further develop Afghan self-sustainability.”
A continued counterterrorism mission also will be needed, he said, to ensure al-Qaida remains focused on survival and not on regeneration.
“Without continued counterterrorism pressure, an emboldened al-Qaida will not only begin to physically reconstitute, but they will also exploit and perceive victory to boost recruitment, fundraising and morale,” Dunford said.
In response to a question about the size of any post-2014 force in Afghanistan, the general said NATO defense ministers had agreed on a need for 8,000 to 12,000 NATO trainers. “A number over and above that would be part of the counterterrorism mission,” he said. “I’m comfortable that within that range of numbers, we can effectively conduct ‘train, advise, assist’ at the corps level, and get after that issue of self-sustainability that I mentioned.”
The general made it clear that he prefers a bilateral security agreement be signed immediately, because the lack of a signed agreement affects the confidence of the Afghan people, Afghanistan’s security forces and partners in the region. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has thus far refused to sign the document, which was endorsed by a national council of local elders and leaders. In the absence of a signed agreement, President Barack Obama has directed the Defense Department to plan for a full withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of the year.
Still, he added, time remains before that decision needs to be made, and military leaders can maintain options for the president in the meantime.
“I feel like we won’t approach an area of high risk until September,” he said. “In other words, I can maintain all options that the president may want to select from through the summer. As you get toward September, you enter a period of high risk, simply because of how much work has to be done to redeploy the force and how many days you have left to do it.”
Dunford said he assumes the new Afghan president to be elected next month will sign the agreement upon taking office, because all of the primary candidates have said they will sign it and the agreement has overwhelming support in Afghanistan.
The general said vital U.S. interests are best served by a stable, secure, unified Afghanistan from which terrorism cannot emanate. “We’ve accomplished much in pursuit of those ends,” he added. Since 9/11, Dunford said, forces have placed extraordinary pressure on al-Qaida and extremist networks in Afghanistan, leaving them to focus on their survival instead of planning attacks on the West.
“With increased emphasis, beginning in 2009, we’ve focused on developing Afghan national security forces,” he said. “Today, as a result of those efforts, capable and competent Afghan forces are securing the Afghan people and the gains that we’ve made over the past decade.”
Dunford also noted efforts since 9/11 to improve the daily lives of the Afghan people, resulting in increased access to clean water, electricity, new roads and education. “But more important than any sign of progress in Afghanistan,” he added, “the Afghan people have something today they didn’t have in 2001: they have hope for the future.
The gains have come at a cost, Dunford said. “We’ve paid the price for those achievements -- 1,796 Americans and thousands more Afghans, and members of the coalition have made the ultimate sacrifice,” he said. “We vow to give their sacrifice meaning and to never forget them or their families.”
Dunford said some people have questioned the progress in Afghanistan, and that they make their point by noting the overall security situation in Afghanistan didn’t really change from 2012 to 2013.
“That’s true,” he said, “and when put into perspective, it’s also extraordinary, because security remained roughly the same with Afghans leading and over 50 percent of the coalition redeploying.
“I think it’s fair to ask if we’re winning in Afghanistan,” said the general continued. “I believe the answer is yes, and several facts allow me to say that with confidence.”
First and foremost, he said, the effort in Afghanistan has pressured terrorist networks and has prevented another 9/11.
“Second, we’ve built Afghan security forces that, with increasingly reduced levels of support, are capable of providing security and denying terrorists safe haven,” Dunford said. “Third, we’re providing stabilizing influence in the region that’s providing the time and space for a wide range of complex issues to be addressed.”
The final result of these efforts, Dunford said, is that the Afghan people face a decade of opportunity in which they can determine their own future, free of the brutality and intolerance of the Taliban.
“Despite all the skepticism surrounding our mission, that looks like winning to me,” he said.