Pentagon Report Foresees Continued Support for Afghanistan
The New York Times - Tuesday, July 30, 2013
WASHINGTON — Following reports in recent weeks that the White House is considering a full withdrawal from Afghanistan when the NATO-led mission ends in December 2014, a Pentagon assessment released Tuesday says significant foreign military assistance and financial support for Afghan security forces will be required long after United States troops are expected to depart.
“Beyond then, it will still require substantial training, advising and assistance — including financial support — to address ongoing shortcomings,” said the report, titled “Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan.”
President Obama has ordered American troop levels, which were at 68,000 earlier this year, to be cut in half by February. Negotiations are under way with the Afghan government on a bilateral security agreement, including whether American military personnel will remain after the NATO mandate expires at the end of 2014.
The twice-yearly report, required by Congress, covers the period from Oct. 1, 2012, to March 31, 2013; it therefore concludes before the start of the annual fighting season, which begins in earnest with the spring thaw. Like its predecessors, the report presents a grave assessment of the challenges remaining for Afghan security, rule of law and economic prosperity, but it also seeks to identify many silver linings of promise among the dark clouds of war.
“Challenges with the economy and governance will continue to foster uncertainty about the long-term prospects for the country,” the report states.
While the assessment says the Afghan government “is increasingly able to execute parts of its budget and deliver very basic goods and services,” it also warns that “the government has yet to reduce corruption or extend governance to many rural areas effectively.”
The insurgency is again described as “resilient,” and the report repeats a standard strategic complaint heard in Washington and Kabul — that so long as the Taliban can find haven in Pakistan, defeating it on the battlefield will be difficult if not impossible.
But other than advances in a few areas, including northern Helmand Province, the insurgency is struggling to make gains and consolidate them. And as Afghans take over the security mission from the United States and NATO, the Taliban is denied a favorite propaganda line that it is battling to liberate the country from a foreign occupying force, according to the assessment.
“Taliban territorial influence and control decreased” last year and through this spring, the report states. “The enemy is now less capable, less popular and less of an existential threat to the Afghan government than in 2011.”
Even so, “insurgents maintained influence in many rural areas that serve as platforms to attack urban areas and were able to carry out attacks with roughly the same frequency as in 2012 — although these attacks tended to be in less populated areas,” it said.
The capabilities of Afghan security forces “have greatly increased over the past two years,” according to the report, an assessment counterbalanced by a statement that domestic security “has yet to demonstrate the ability to operate independently on a nationwide scale.”
Afghan security forces are taking the lead for almost 90 percent of all military operations, the report states, highlighting that “the conflict in Afghanistan has shifted into a fundamentally new phase.”
“For the past 11 years, the United States and our coalition partners have led the fight against the Taliban, but now Afghan forces are conducting almost all combat operations,” the report states.
The report also notes a steep increase in casualties among Afghan forces and a concurrent drop in casualties among American and NATO forces. Afghan security forces do struggle with battlefield evacuation of wounded troops and emergency medical care, as well as with recruiting, retention, payroll and logistical operations like providing fuel and ammunition.
Special attention is paid to the number of Afghan units that can operate independently in combat. Although the report’s period ended in March, Pentagon officials said that 12 of 24 Afghan brigades could operate independently with their foreign advisers as of this month, and that 11 more were ranked effective if not independent.
The number of Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan today is “very low,” but Al Qaeda’s relationship with the local Afghan Taliban “remains intact,” according to the report.
The release of the Pentagon assessment came days after the senior military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., told The New York Times that Afghanistan would need the United States for years to come.
General Dunford said that by the end of next year, “the actual fighting on a day-to-day basis will all be done by Afghans.” But he also cautioned that “Afghan forces, at the end of 2014, won’t be completely independent,” and said that “our presence post-2014 is necessary for the gains we have made to date to be sustainable.”