By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 15, 2011 - Coalition and Afghan troops have retaken the advantage, once thought lost, from the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Defense Department's top policy official said today.
Michele Flournoy, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that following the 9/11 attacks, the United States went into Afghanistan to attack al-Qaida and take down the Taliban regime that supported the terrorists.
From 2001 to 2003, operations in Afghanistan went well. "In the years that followed, however, we lost focus on Afghanistan," she said. "While our attention was turned away, al-Qaida, the Taliban, and associated extremist groups reconstituted their safe havens along the borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan."
The terrorists returned; the Taliban took over wide swaths of land; and the enemy used narcotics to finance their efforts and intimidate the population.
"When President [Barack] Obama took office, he immediately undertook a thorough review of our strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan and reaffirmed our core goal: to disrupt, dismantle and eventually defeat al-Qaida, and to prevent its return to Afghanistan," Flournoy said.
That strategy required more American troops on the ground. Since taking office, the president has ordered about 60,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. The Afghan surge was finally all in place in September, and it is paying off, Flournoy said.
"With the troop surge, the U.S. and our [International Security Assistance Force] partners now have over 150,000 troops in Afghanistan, putting relentless pressure on the insurgents and securing more and more of the Afghan population," she said. "That surge has been matched by a surge in the numbers, quality and capability of the Afghan national security forces."
Afghan forces last year grew by more than 70,000 members, and the capabilities of their leaders increased. Training for rank and file - including literacy classes - is proceeding apace. Once trained, the Afghan forces partner with coalition forces, Flournoy said.
"U.S. and ISAF forces, fighting side by side with increasingly capable Afghan units throughout the country, have wrested the initiative from the insurgents, even in the strongholds of central Helmand and Kandahar provinces," she said. "And we've turned up the pressure on al-Qaida and its affiliates in the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, significantly degrading, though not yet defeating, their ability to plan and conduct operations."
The military effort is just one part of the surge, which included a comparable increase in civilians. More than 1,100 civilian experts from nine U.S. agencies are helping to build Afghan governance and economic capacity, the undersecretary said. That work is "absolutely vital to the ultimate success of our overall mission in Afghanistan," she said.
But the gains, made at great sacrifice, can still be lost, Flournoy said. "We must continue our efforts with Pakistan to eliminate terrorist and insurgent safe havens," she said. "We seek to build an effective partnership that advances both U.S. and Pakistani interests, including the denial of safe havens to all violent extremist organizations."
The United States must demonstrate to Pakistan that America will remain a strong supporter of their security and prosperity now and in the years to come, she said.
The Afghan government must do more to tackle predatory corruption that erodes public trust and fuels the insurgency, Flournoy said. "We must help create the conditions necessary to enable a political settlement among the Afghan people," she said. "This includes reconciling those insurgents who are willing to renounce al-Qaida, forsake violence and adhere to the Afghan constitution."
In July, the United States will begin pulling troops out of Afghanistan and transition security responsibility to Afghan forces. "This transition is a process, not an event," she said. "The process will unfold village by village, district by district, province by province.
"The determination of when the transition will occur and where it will occur is going to be based on bottom-up assessments of local conditions," she added. "This process is beginning now," and Afghan President Hamid Karzai is expected to announce the first round of districts and provinces for transition on March 21.
Flournoy spoke about the costs of the war in Afghanistan where U.S. casualties have risen since the surge began. "But the Afghan-Pakistan borderland has served as a crucible for the most catastrophic terrorist actions of the past decade," Flournoy said. "The outcome we seek is the defeat of al-Qaida and the denial of the region as a sanctuary for terrorists.
"This objective is the reason why our brave men and women in service have sacrificed so very much," she continued. "And we are determined to bring this war to a successful conclusion, for the sake of our own security, but also for the sake of the security of the people of Afghanistan, Pakistan and the region, who have suffered so much, who have so much to gain from a secure and lasting peace."
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