Stay the course in Afghanistan" was the message Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen delivered to the House Armed Services Committee March 20.
Allen, commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, told the representatives that the 50-nation coalition has the right strategy to realize its goals.
"I can tell you, unequivocally, three things. First, we remain on track to ensure that Afghanistan will no longer be a safe haven for al-Qaida and will no longer be terrorized by the Taliban," he said.
Adding, "Second, as a coalition, … we are well along in our progress to meet our 2010 [NATO] commitments to transition security lead to the Afghan national security forces by December 2014. Third, our troops know the difference they are making, and the enemy feels it every day." NATO nations agreed to the timeline at the alliance’s November 2010 summit in Lisbon, Portugal.
The past few months have been trying but that should not take anything away from the progress being made in the country, Allen told the panel.
Following revelations that American troops had accidentally mishandled Islamic religious texts, protests occurred in a few Afghan regions.
"Thirty-two Afghans lost their lives in those riots; even more were hurt," he said.
"Just since the first of January, the coalition has lost 60 brave troops in action, from six different nations. Thirteen of them were killed at the hands of what appear to have been Afghan security forces, some of whom who were motivated, we believe in part, by the mishandling of religious materials," he added.
Now, the coalition is investigating "what appears to be the murder of 16 innocent Afghan civilians at the hands of a U.S. service member," Allen said. "Each of these events is heart-wrenching, and my thoughts and prayers go out to all those affected by the violence – coalition and Afghan alike."
But even these incidents cannot damage the strong relationships being built between Afghan and coalition forces, he said.
Allen maintained the progress in the country is real and sustainable. "We have severely degraded the insurgency," he said. "As one Afghan commander told me in the south in the latter part of 2011, ‘This time around, the Taliban was the away team.’"
The coalition continued the pace of operations through the winter, the general said, degrading the Taliban’s ability to mount a major spring offensive.
"This spring, they will come back to find many of their caches empty, their former strongholds untenable, and a good many of their foot soldiers absent or unwilling to join the fight," he added.
Reintegration of former insurgents back into Afghan society is becoming more important, Allen said.
He cited the case in December of 50 former Taliban who formally decided to reintegrate.
"When asked why they lay down their arms, they complained of the unrelenting pressure they were under," Allen said.
Adding, "They said they found themselves up against capable Afghan forces in greater numbers and with greater frequency. And while they were willing to fight foreigners, they were unwilling to fight their Afghan brothers – especially Afghans who fought back with courage and skill because of the training we had provided to them. And the training we provide to them is a critical part of our mission."
That training is the linchpin of coalition strategy, the general said, noting that local forces are the ones who defeat insurgencies. "In the long run, our goals can only be achieved and then secured by Afghan forces," he said.
In the past year, Afghan security forces have grown from 276,000 to 330,000 members. "They will reach their full surge strength ahead of scheduled deadline in October," Allen said. "The expansion and professionalization of Afghan security forces allow us to recover the remaining 23,000 U.S. surge troops by this fall, enable us to continue to pressure the Taliban to reconcile, and make possible security transition to the Afghans in accordance with our Lisbon commitments and on time."
They are doing the job, he told the representatives. Security conditions in areas under Afghan control are good, he said, and the Afghans already provide security for more than 50 percent of the population. Later this year, he added, Afghan forces will assume the security lead for two-thirds, or possibly more, of the Afghan people.
"As the potential unifying influence in Afghanistan, the Afghan forces are better than we thought, and they’re better than they thought they would be," he said. "As they move to the fore, they are gaining more and more confidence, and they are gaining more and more capability."
Afghans are participating in more operations. In the past five months, 89 percent of the total conventional operations were partnered, and 42 percent were Afghan-led, Allen said.
"Over the next two years, coalition forces will remain combat-ready, but increasingly focused on security force assistance missions," he added.
Afghan leadership is key, and the Afghans want this responsibility, he said.
"They are truly emerging as the real ‘defeat mechanism’ of this insurgency, and increasingly as an emblem of national unity and this is essential for the long-term security of Afghanistan," he said.
But the enemy remains determined, Allen acknowledged. "This campaign has been long," he said. "It has been difficult, and it has been costly. There have been setbacks, to be sure – we’re experiencing them now – and there will be more setbacks ahead.
"I wish I could tell you that this war was simple, and that progress could be easily measured," he continued. "But that’s not the way of counterinsurgencies. They are fraught with success and setbacks, which can exist in the same space and time, but each must be seen in the larger context of the overall campaign. And I believe that the campaign is on track.
"We are making a difference. I know this, and our troops know this."