Petraeus testifies coalition forces have momentum in Afghanistan
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.
House Armed Services Committee testimony
On the following day, March 16, Petraeus appeared before the House Armed Service Committee and testified that each step in the process, set to culminate with Afghan forces having the security lead throughout the country by the end of 2014, must be closely coordinated and irrevocable.
The coalition has increased its efforts to enable the Afghan government’s work to improve governance, economic development and the provision of basic services, Petraeus said.
"These are essential elements of the effort to shift delivery of basic services from provincial reconstruction teams and international organizations to Afghan government elements," he said.
Afghan-led reintegration of reconcilable insurgents must be an important element of the strategy, Petraeus said, noting that the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force is assisting Afghan government initiatives, including the recently established Afghan high peace council and provincial reintegration councils.
"Indeed, we recognize that we and our Afghan partners cannot just kill or capture our way out of the insurgency in Afghanistan. In fact, some 700 former Taliban have now officially reintegrated with Afghan authorities, and some 2,000 more are in various stages of the reintegration process."
All of these efforts are part of a comprehensive civil-military approach in which ISAF coordinates with international organizations, diplomatic missions in Afghanistan, and the Afghan government and security forces.
"We have also sought to ensure that we minimize loss of innocent civilian life in the course of our operations," he added.
A recent United Nations study found that civilian casualties resulting from ISAF actions decreased by more than 20 percent in 2010, though the number of coalition forces increased by more than 100,000, Petraeus noted.
But despite the reduction in civilian casualties, he said, several tragic incidents in recent weeks prompted him to order a review of use of force at all levels of ISAF and among attack helicopter air crews.
"I also reemphasized instructions on reducing damage to infrastructure and property to an absolute minimum," he said. "Counterinsurgents cannot succeed if they harm the people they are striving to protect."
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has announced the first locations where security responsibility will transition to Afghan lead. In keeping with the principles adopted by NATO’s North Atlantic Council, the pace of transition will be determined by conditions on the ground.
As the security transition unfolds, he said, ISAF must focus not just on the year ahead, but on the goal of full security responsibility transfer by the end of 2014.
"Indeed, we need to ensure that we take a sufficiently long view [and] that our actions in the months ahead enable long-term achievement in the years ahead," Petraeus said.
ISAF has refined its campaign plan to do just that, and has begun to look beyond 2014 to establishing U.S. and NATO strategic partnerships with Afghanistan.
"All of this is enormously reassuring to our Afghan partners, and of considerable concern to the Taliban," he said. An enduring commitment by the international community to Afghanistan, he added, is important to insurgents’ recognition that reconciliation, rather than continued fighting, should be their goal.
Petraeus said four funding issues are key to sustaining progress in Afghanistan.
"I am concerned that levels of funding for our State Department and [U.S. Agency for International Development] partners will not sufficiently enable them to build on the hard-fought security achievements of our men and women in uniform," he said, adding that inadequate funding for civilian efforts in Afghanistan could jeopardize the overall mission.
"I offer that assessment noting we have just completed a joint civil-military campaign plan between U.S. Forces Afghanistan and the U.S. embassy."
Second, Petraeus said, he deeply appreciates funding for additional capabilities such as surveillance assets and all-terrain mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles for coalition forces.
Commanders Emergency Response Program and reintegration program funding have likewise been instrumental to the overall counterinsurgency effort, he said.
Third, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, he said, are the largest donors to Afghanistan after the United States, and have been critical to construction of the Ring Road and the Uzbek-Afghan railroad.
"We need these critical enabling institutions, and further U.S. support for them will ensure that they’re able to continue to contribute as significantly as they have in the past," he said.
Finally, funding for development of Afghan security forces and their resulting gains in quantity, quality and capability is "essential to the process of transition," Petraeus said.
"Our objectives in Afghanistan and in the region are of vital importance," he said. "We will continue to make adjustments, in close consultation with our Afghan and international counterparts, as the situation evolves."
(Editor’s note: Based on reports from the American Forces Press Service.)