Allied gains in Afghanistan are “fragile and reversible” and may be in jeopardy if Congress doesn’t provide enough civilian aid, U.S. Army General David Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, said.
“The momentum achieved by the Taliban in Afghanistan since 2005 has been arrested in much of the country and reversed in a number of important areas,” Petraeus told the Senate Armed Services Committee today. “However, while the security progress achieved over the past year is significant, it is also fragile and reversible.”
|Gen. David Petraeus
Petraeus said there has been progress toward the goal of having Afghan forces in charge of security throughout the country by the end of 2014. A long-term commitment by the world to aid Afghanistan would show insurgents that “reconciliation, rather than continued fighting, should be their goal.”
In a typical 90-day period, he said, U.S. forces and their Afghan partners kill or capture 360 targeted insurgent leaders, he said. The number of weapons and explosives caches reported by Afghans has increased four-fold in recent months, indicating growing support from the populace, he said.
Pakistan, Afghanistan and the coalition also have achieved “unprecedented” coordination to stem the flow of fighters and weapons across the border, Petraeus said. Al-Qaeda also is under increasing pressure in the North Waziristan area of Pakistan, where it has hidden in recent years.
“There is, I think, the growing recognition that you cannot allow poisonous snakes to have a nest in your backyard, even if they bite the neighbor’s kids,” Petraeus said.
Senator John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the panel, echoed military leaders’ recent cautions that the U.S. needs to be prepared for increased fighting, and for more casualties, as the Taliban tries to regroup after the winter.
He appealed again for President Barack Obama to reconsider plans to begin withdrawing troops in July. The “wisest course,” McCain said, may be to move forces no longer needed in some locations to places where they may be pivotal.
“We should not rush to failure and we should cultivate strategic patience,” he said. “Our country, and especially this Congress, must remain committed to this fight.”
Conditions on Ground
Michele Flournoy, the undersecretary of Defense for policy, said the U.S. and its partners will reduce some of their forces and shift others only based on conditions on the ground.
“We have no intention of declaring premature transitions” that would force the coalition to return to those areas in the future, she said.
Petraeus said he supports the July drawdown target, which Obama announced in a December 2009 speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, along with the decision to add 30,000 American troops to the fight last year.
The deadline sends a “message of urgency” to the Afghans that they must improve their government and security forces before foreign troops leave, he said.
Petraeus said he hasn’t determined how many U.S. forces can be withdrawn this year. He and Defense Secretary Robert Gates met with Obama at the White House yesterday.
The remarks came during Petraeus’s first congressional testimony since taking over as commander in Afghanistan in July. Obama selected Petraeus to take over there after Army General Stanley McChrystal resigned in June over remarks disparaging administration officials.
Obama is counting on progress against the Taliban and an increase in trained Afghan forces to keep his pledge of starting an American troop drawdown in July. The timeline was a condition for authorizing the addition of 30,000 U.S. troops last year to the war, in which at least 1,156 American personnel have been killed and more than 10,500 wounded.
$336 Billion Spent
The U.S. has spent more than $336 billion for the war in Afghanistan and associated counterterrorism operations, according to the Congressional Research Service. Political pressure is growing to scale back U.S. involvement amid record budget deficits and waning public interest.
Almost two-thirds of Americans say the war is no longer worth fighting, according to a poll conducted by the Washington Post and ABC News. Almost 75 percent said Obama should withdraw “substantial” U.S. forces from the conflict this year, according to the results reported in the Washington Post today.
Bracing for Resurgence
The 48-nation coalition, led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is bracing for a resurgence of fighting with the spring thaw.
The renewed fighting will test the coalition’s ability to hold on to gains made possible by the increase in troops last year. In addition to the U.S. increase, other nations added about 8,000 troops, bringing the total to 100,000 American forces and almost 50,000 from other nations.
Gates appealed to partner nations at NATO headquarters in Brussels last week to talk more about winning in Afghanistan than rushing to withdraw.
Asked to define winning in Afghanistan, Petraeus said Afghanistan should no longer be a potential haven for al-Qaeda. The terrorist group’s presence in the country prompted the invasion after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon.
Afghanistan must provide its own security and governance to ensure that the Taliban could no longer take over and harbor al- Qaeda, Petraeus said. The coalition’s killing of al-Qaeda’s third-ranking leader in Afghanistan in recent months was an indication that the group continues to seek a haven there, he said.
Officials have said they probably will attain their goal of 305,000 Afghans trained and in the field with security forces before October.
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