WASHINGTON (Dec. 16, 2010) — Results achieved by U.S. troops “surged” to Afghanistan beginning last summer have been greater than expected, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today.
“The military progress made in just the past three to four months, since the last of the additional 30,000 U.S. troops arrived, has exceeded my expectations,” Gates said.
Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Marine Corps Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, joined President Barack Obama at the White House today as the president announced findings of the Afghanistan and Pakistan Annual Review, released today.
Following the president’s remarks, Gates discussed military success to date in meeting the president’s core goal of disrupting, dismantling and defeating al-Qaida in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.
The Taliban control far less territory today than they did a year ago, Gates said. During his last trip to Afghanistan a week ago, he added, he observed U.S., coalition and Afghan efforts across the country and met with troops and commanders on the ground.
“I saw personally how international and Afghan forces have halted Taliban momentum throughout the country, and are reversing it in their traditional strongholds of Kandahar and Helmand,” he said. “The sense of progress among those closest to the fight is palpable.”
Coalition forces and their Afghan partners in Kandahar have “taken new territory, cleared it, secured it and held it, and … are now in the process of linking their newly established zone of security with those in Helmand province,” the secretary said.
While fighting in some areas remains fierce, he said, it is achieving its objectives of reversing Taliban momentum.
“As we expected and warned, U.S., coalition and Afghan forces are suffering more casualties as we push into these areas long controlled by the Taliban,” he said. “Fighting in the east … has also picked up. But as a result of the tough fight under way, the Taliban control far less territory today than they did a year ago.”
Gates said the Afghan security forces have been central to the effort in containing insurgent activity. The strategy review indicates growth of those forces in both size and capability is ahead of schedule, he said.
“More than 65,000 have joined the fight this year, and virtually all of them are now rifle qualified, as opposed to only a third of them in November of 2009,” said Gates, noting Afghan troops now are responsible for security in the Afghan capital of Kabul and increasingly are taking the lead in Kandahar, where they make up 60 percent of the fighting forces.
“They are performing well in partnership with coalition troops, and will continue to improve with the right training, equipment and support,” the secretary said.
The growth of local security initiatives is helping communities protect themselves against the Taliban while denying insurgents sanctuary and freedom of movement, he said.
As the review indicates, Gates said, Pakistan also plays a critical role in achieving U.S. strategy in the region.
“Pakistan has committed over 140,000 troops to operations in extremist safe havens along the border of Afghanistan, in coordination with Afghan and coalition forces on the Afghan side,” he said.
Gates said that while U.S. officials believe Pakistan can and must do more to shut down the flow of insurgents across the border, “it is important to remember that these kinds of military operations in the tribal areas would have been considered unthinkable just two years ago. And the Pakistani military has simultaneously been contending with the historic flooding that has devastated much of the country.”
The secretary expressed confidence that the president’s goals will be met.
“While our progress in Afghanistan, as both the president and Secretary Clinton have said, is fragile and reversible, I believe that we will be able to achieve the key goals laid out by the president last year and further embraced by other NATO heads of state in Lisbon,” he said. “That is, for Afghan forces to begin taking the security lead in the coming year, and for the Afghan government to assume security responsibility countrywide by the end of 2014.”
The security transition already has begun in places such as Kabul, Gates added, will accelerate in the spring and summer, and gradually continue over time, based on conditions on the ground.
“I’d like to close with a special word of thanks and holiday greetings to our troops and their families, and especially to those who are serving in Afghanistan,” the secretary said. “It is their sacrifice that has made this progress possible. I regret that we will be asking even more of them in the months and years to come.”
Clinton said the review shows that key parts of the strategy are working well.
Multinational contributions, continued diplomatic engagement with Afghanistan and Pakistan, and civilian support to military efforts in the region are vital elements of U.S. strategy there, she said.
“In Afghanistan, our surge is not simply military. We have
expanded our presence from 320 civilians less than two years ago to 1,100 today,” Clinton said. “Accomplishing our mission requires close cooperation between our civilians, our troops and our international and Afghan partners.”
The secretary of state said civilian contributions to economic development and expanding the reach of governance have been instrumental to building progress in Helmand and Kandahar.
“And they will be critical in helping us consolidate the gains we’ve made in the last year as we move toward a transition to Afghan responsibility,” she said.
Clinton said U.S. strategy recognizes that rebuilding Afghanistan is a global commitment, and NATO’s International Security Assistance Force coalition in Afghanistan continues to grow, now numbering 49 contributing nations.
Coalition members include NATO and other partner nations, among them the Organization of Islamic Countries, she said.
“This alignment of our international effort was on full display at the NATO summit in Lisbon last month, where the coalition committed to a long-term partnership with Afghanistan while laying out a plan for the Afghan government to take responsibility for its own security,” Clinton said.
The deepening relationship between the United States and Pakistan is also central to strategic success in the region, the secretary of State said.
“We have moved beyond a purely transactional relationship dominated by military cooperation,” Clinton said. “Through the strategic dialogue that we established last year, Pakistan and the United States have begun a long-term commitment to work together not just on security but on energy, agriculture, education, health and other areas that directly affect the daily lives of the Pakistani people.”
She said while the relationship has seen obstacles and setbacks, the two nations’ partnership is steadily improving, yielding tangible results on the ground.
“In Pakistan, it will be important to keep making progress and
eliminating sanctuaries for extremists, and we must continue to close the gap between Kabul and Islamabad,” Clinton said.
The review emphasizes the need for a political process in Afghanistan, including reconciliation and expanded regional and international diplomacy to complement the continued military presence, she said.
U.S. strategic goals in Afghanistan won’t be achieved “today, tomorrow or next month,” she said, “But we are committed and believe we are progressing in our core goal of disrupting, dismantling and defeating al-Qaida in the region and becoming strong partners with both countries for the long term.”
“We will not - in fact, we dare not - repeat history,” she concluded. “We will continue to support the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan as they work to build their future, one that is secure, prosperous and free and does not pose a threat to the people of the United States.”