Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, right, answers a question with Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta during a news conference at the Pentagon, April 16, 2012. (DOD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo)
WASHINGTON, April 16, 2012 — Challenges will continue in Afghanistan, but the response to recent attacks points to the maturation of Afghan security forces, U.S. defense leaders said here today.
At a Pentagon news conference alongside Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta stressed that the strategy put in place last year is succeeding, and the partnership between the United States and Afghanistan remains strong.
Panetta confirmed that intelligence points to the Haqqani network as being behind the coordinated attacks over the weekend.
“We had received a great deal of intelligence indicating that the Haqqanis were planning these kinds of attacks,” he said. “Obviously, we’re always concerned about the attacks that take place. They reflect that the Taliban is resilient, that they remain determined. And yet I think we’re also confident that the Afghans have increased their capability to deal with these kinds of attacks.”
The attacks were nothing more than terror attacks, which succeeded in gaining attention, but ultimately proving nothing, the secretary told reporters. “There were no tactical gains here,” he said. “These are isolated attacks that are done for symbolic purposes, and they have not regained any territory.”
The enemy in Afghanistan has not been able to conduct a meaningful, organized campaign since 2010, the secretary said. The lack of impact from yesterday’s attacks also indicates improvement in Afghan forces, he added.
“The Afghan army and police did a great job of reacting to these attacks,” he said. “They quickly restored order, they quickly restored security in those areas, and it gave us an indication that they really are improving in terms of their capability to provide security.”
This is only the beginning of the Taliban fighting season, Panetta noted. However, NATO and U.S. officials are confident that the International Security Assistance Force and Afghan forces can confront the threat, he said.
Dempsey said that while the “evidence leads us to believe that the Haqqani network was involved in this, it doesn’t lead back into Pakistan at this time.”
Officials have said the Haqqani network is the most capable terror group in the region. Some leaders live in Quetta, Pakistan, and DOD officials have said in the past that the Pakistani intelligence agency has its finger on the pulse of the terror group.
“We’re not prepared to suggest this emanated out of Pakistan,” Dempsey said. “I mean, the evidence may at some point lead us there, but we’re not there yet.”
The attacks over the weekend mean “we’re still in a fight,” the general said. Some fighting will be tough, and there will be casualties, he acknowledged.
“We’ve been talking quite openly about the fact that we’ve got three more fighting seasons with which to both build the [Afghan national security forces] and diminish the capability of the Taliban and the associated movements,” he said.
Dempsey has worked in Iraq and Afghanistan to build security forces in previous assignments, and he said today he is encouraged by the Afghan forces’ response over the weekend.
“I’ll tell you, the Afghan security forces performed their duties admirably when attacked, even though it was on very short notice over the last 48 hours,” he said.