NEWS | Aug. 1, 2011

Mullen confident Afghans will be ready to shoulder security

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (July 30, 2011) — The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is satisfied the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan is being done in a responsible manner and that the Afghan national security forces will be able to shoulder the defense burden by 2014.

Navy Adm. Mike Mullen spoke to soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines at Kandahar Air Field this morning, and he was asked for his opinion on the subject.

President Barack Obama announced in June that the United States would draw down 10,000 personnel by the end of the year and withdraw another 23,000 personnel by the end of September 2012.

The drawdown has begun with some small units not being replaced at the end of their tours. Mullen said the new commander of the International Security Assistance Force, Marine Gen. John Allen, is working on the plan to draw down the rest of the personnel.

The drawdown cannot be seen in a vacuum, Mullen said. Earlier this month, coalition forces began transitioning security responsibility for seven areas of the country containing 25 percent of the population to Afghan national security forces.

“That’s the beginning of the security transition that will take place where (the Afghans) are in control of the country by the end of 2014,” the chairman said.

The seven areas are the provinces of Bamiyan and Panjshir, the western city of Herat, the capital area of Kabul, eastern Laghman province, Mazar-i-Sharif in the north and Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province. A second set of transition areas will be announced in December.

This should be enough time, Mullen said, especially with the progress made against the Taliban. Even after the drawdown, “there will still be 68,000 U.S. troops on the ground here through next summer,” he said. “The Taliban had a pretty bad year last year. They’re having a bad year this year, and I think they’re going to have a bad year next year. So that’s three fighting seasons where the surge is really able to impact on them and make a difference, and we’ll see where we go from there.”

U.S. and Afghan leaders are negotiating a long-term strategic relationship. “I’m confident that we will have that kind of document,” Mullen. “To me that sends a very strong signal of continued commitment to Afghanistan and to the region.”

But the nature of the commitment will change. The Afghans are leading in some areas – not too many – right now. This will grow, and coalition forces will go into a tactical overwatch mode. As the Afghan national security forces gain more capability, the coalition forces will move a bit farther back and do strategic overwatch. Ultimately, Mullen said coalition forces will move into a training and assist mode, as they are doing today in Iraq.

“That’s the kind of transition we are looking at over the next two to four years,” Mullen said. “The specifics of what it would look like after 2014 is what we need to work at.”