In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee today, General John Allen said the mission in Afghanistan remains on track, despite the infamous Quran burnings and last week’s civilian casualty incident. Allen, who will testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday morning, is the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan
On transitioning security responsibilities to Afghans
Security responsibility for some areas has transitioned to Afghan forces with notable success, though other areas, especially in eastern Afghanistan, are not yet ready. As former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald Neumann noted in a February 2012 oped in the Washington Post, “The transition strategy must be adaptable to these different situations. In some areas, the Afghans would lead, with U.S. advisers and with larger U.S. combat formations available to support as needed. In other areas, where tough clearing operations are required, the U.S. military would continue to lead for some time.”
Transitioning security responsibility to the Afghans based on anything other than conditions on the ground is not only irresponsible, but also risks breaking the fragile state of the Afghan security forces. As Allen said, “Transition, then, is the linchpin of our strategy, not merely the ‘way out.’” If it is not implemented correctly, it will have serious consequences for President Obama’s planned troop drawdown.
On mission change
Mission change was also discussed—when this might occur, and what it means for the role of U.S. combat forces going forward.
Dr. James N. Miller, principal deputy under secretary of defense for policy, testified today that sometime in 2013 Afghan forces will take the lead in security operations nationwide, but they will actually not be responsible for security until 2014. However, right up until the end of 2014, U.S. forces will be engaged in combat operations in support of Afghan forces, according to Allen. Furthermore, beyond 2014, international forces will assist Afghan security forces with training missions and counterterrorism operations.
Analysts in Washington have focused on the idea of shifting the overall mission from counterinsurgency to security force assistance, which means partnering and training Afghan forces while they take the lead in overall security operations. Based on the Allen’s testimony, though, it is clear there is much to do and that a nationwide shift from counterinsurgency to security force assistance is premature at this juncture. That’s not to say that U.S. and international forces aren’t focused on training and mentoring Afghan forces while pushing them forward to lead operations. In many areas, especially in southern Afghanistan, this is happening. However, Allen was quick to note that he intends to conduct offensive counterinsurgency operations in eastern Afghanistan and that this is needed but not necessarily sufficient to address the threat from the Haqqani network and other cross-border insurgent networks.
It is likely that Allen will need around 68,000 troops through 2013 in order to execute this mission effectively, although he avoided specific discussions on troop numbers when pressed by lawmakers. When the general testifies before the Senate Armed Services on Thursday, senators will likely ask how long and intense those operations need to be and whether he has the combat power he needs to execute them.
Insurgent safe havens in Pakistan continue to present a serious threat to overall security Afghanistan, according to General Allen. When a congressman asked him what the mission in Afghanistan is, Allen said it is to keep the Taliban and affiliated groups from overthrowing the Afghan government and to prevent the return of al Qaeda and its affiliates to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The persistence of the Taliban’s safehavens in Pakistan directly threatens the first objective.
According to the general, there has been no substantive progress in Pakistan’s willingness to address insurgent safehavens. As a result, Allen noted that forces (presumably Afghan and coalition) will have to be “thickened” in eastern Afghanistan in order to address the externally supported insurgency. While substantive security progress in the east can be made without fundamentally dismantling the insurgent sanctuary in Pakistan, insurgency’s regenerative capacity will undermine the Afghan forces’ ability to maintain security gains after the U.S. withdrawal.
On reconciliation talks with the Taliban
During the hearing Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R, Maryland) asked attendees to imagine themselves as a rational Taliban fighter. He noted that over the past year, the U.S. has announced that it is leaving in 2014, will cease offensive combat operations in 2013, and, instead, continue with training and advising Afghan forces. Bartlett referenced what is likely the Afghan Peace and Reintegration Program, under British commander Major General David Hook, stating that the program offers fighters amnesty, training, jobs, and aid for their villages if they leave the insurgency—and they get to keep their weapons. Indeed, it is likely that some rational Taliban fighters would either wait the U.S. out or join the program under false pretences to reap immediate rewards and possible return to the insurgency at a later date. Since strategic level peace talks with the Taliban’s senior leadership stalled before they could even begin, it does not seem likely that the U.S. and Afghanistan will soon reach a political solution with the Taliban to end the war.
Allen did not directly address this, though he noted that 3,600 Taliban fighters have joined the reintegration process and another 400 fighters are set to participate. While this is certainly a sign that the insurgency is under pressure, one should not read too much into it.
Jeffrey Dressler is a senior analyst studying security dynamics in Afghanistan and Pakistan at the Institute for the Study of War and author of the recent report, “The Haqqani Network: A Strategic Threat.”