The Taliban’s momentum has been reversed in most areas of Afghanistan, but the progress achieved there is fragile and reversible, the commander of NATO and U.S. forces said March 15 before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), told the committee that much dangerous work remains ahead for coalition and Afghan government forces in the country.
"Nonetheless, the hard-fought achievements in 2010 and early 2011 have enabled the joint Afghan-NATO transition board to recommend initiation this spring of transition to Afghan lead in several provinces," he said.
The progress also will factor into his recommendations in drawing down the number of U.S. forces in the country, now at around 100,000, he added.
The progress, Petraeus said, has put the NATO-led effort on the path to turn over security responsibility for the country to Afghan forces by 2014.
The effort in Afghanistan is more than simply a military campaign, Petraeus told the senators. Support and resources the United States and the 47 other troop-contributing countries have provided has allowed the civil-military campaign to work, he said.
And, Petraeus noted, the Afghans themselves are shouldering an increasingly larger share of the defense burden.
"More than 87,000 additional NATO-ISAF troopers and 1,000 additional civilians have been added to the effort in Afghanistan since the beginning of 2009," Petraeus said.
Adding, "In Afghanistan, security forces have grown by over 122,000 in that time as well."
Getting the inputs right has enabled all forces to conduct the comprehensive campaign, he said.
"Our core objective is, of course, ensuring that Afghanistan does not once again become a sanctuary for al-Qaida," Petraeus said. "Achieving that objective requires that we help Afghanistan develop sufficient capabilities to secure and govern itself, and that effort requires the execution of the comprehensive civil-military effort on which we are now embarked."
The effort has enabled a stepped-up tempo of precise, intelligence-driven operations to capture or kill insurgent leaders, he said.
"In a typical 90-day period, in fact, precision operations by U.S. special mission units and their Afghan partners alone kill or capture some 360 targeted insurgent leaders," Petraeus said.
In addition, he said "Moreover, intelligence-driven operations are now coordinated with senior officers of the relevant Afghan ministries, and virtually all include highly trained Afghan soldiers or police, with some Afghan elements now in the lead on these operations."
Combined ISAF-Afghan operations have cleared the Taliban from important safe havens, and the forces are holding these areas, allowing governance and development to take root, Petraeus noted.
"ISAF and Afghan troopers have, for example, cleared such critical areas as the districts west of Kandahar city that were the birthplace of the Taliban movement, as well as important districts of Helmand province," he said.
These operations have resulted in the gradual development of local governance and economic revival in the growing security bubbles, he said, pointing out that in Marja in Helmand province, once a Taliban stronghold, 75 percent of registered voters cast ballots in recent city elections.
"As a result of improvements in the security situation there," Petraeus said, "the markets, which once sold weapons, explosives and illegal narcotics, now feature over 1,500 shops selling food, clothes and household goods."
Safe havens in Pakistan also are receiving attention, as ISAF has troops in place to interdict these corridors, the general told the senators, and ISAF and Afghan troops are cooperating with Pakistani forces across the border to trap Taliban forces between this hammer and anvil.
"In keeping with the principles adopted by [NATO’s] North Atlantic Council to guide transition," he said, "the shifting of responsibility from ISAF to Afghan forces will be conducted at a pace determined by conditions on the ground with assessments provided from the bottom up so that those at operational-command level in Afghanistan can plan the resulting battlefield geometry adjustments with our Afghan partners."
The transition, he continued, will allow NATO to take some troops out of the country, and will enable a bulk-up of troops in other areas.
"Similar processes are also taking place as we commence transition of certain training and institutional functions from ISAF trainers to their Afghan counterparts," Petraeus said.
It’s important to ensure the transition process is irreversible, he noted.
"As the ambassadors of several ISAF countries emphasized at one recent NATO meeting," he said, "we’ll get one shot at transition, and we need to get it right."
Since the surge of forces into Afghanistan reached its peak eight months ago, the progress is undeniable, Petraeus told the panel.
The Taliban have lost safe havens, many insurgent leaders have been killed or captured, and hundreds of reconcilable mid-level leaders and fighters have been reintegrated into Afghan society, he said.
Meanwhile, Petraeus added, Afghan forces have grown in numbers and capabilities, and security improvements have meant real progress in governance and the economy.
"None of this has been easy," he said. "The progress achieved has entailed hard fighting and considerable sacrifice. There have been tough losses along the way, and there have been setbacks as well as successes.
"Indeed, the experience has been akin to that of a roller coaster ride. The trajectory has generally been upward since last summer, but there certainly have been significant bumps and difficult reverses at various points."
The Taliban will try to regain momentum this spring, Petraeus said.
"We believe that we will be able to build on the momentum achieved in 2010, though that clearly will entail additional tough fighting," he added.