With U.S. troops set to begin drawing down in Afghanistan this July, Gen. David Petraeus told the Senate Armed Services Committee today that U.S. and allied forces have made "fragile and reversible" gains this year, but that Afghan forces are on pace to assume control of security in select provinces this spring.
From Petraeus's prepared testimony:
As a bottom line up front, it is ISAF's assessment that the momentum achieved by the Taliban in Afghanistan since 2005 has been arrested in much of the country and reversed in a number of important areas. However, while the security progress achieved over the past year is significant, it is also fragile and reversible. Moreover, it is clear that much difficult work lies ahead with our Afghan partners to solidify and expand our gains in the face of the expected Taliban spring offensive. Nonetheless, the hard-fought achievements in 2010 and early 2011 have enabled the Joint Afghan-NATO Transition Board to recommend initiation this spring of transition to Afghan lead in several provinces. The achievements of the past year are also very important as I prepare to provide options and a recommendation to President Obama for commencement of the drawdown of the US surge forces in July. Of note, as well, the progress achieved has put us on the right azimuth to accomplish the objective agreed upon at last November's Lisbon Summit, that of Afghan forces in the lead throughout the country by the end of 2014.
Other points of interest from Petraeus's testimony:
- Afghan President Hamid Karzai will announce on March 21 the locations where Afghan security forces will assume control, Petraeus said.
- "In a typical 90-day period, in fact, precision operations by US special mission units and their Afghan partners alone kill or capture some 360 targeted insurgent leaders," Petraeus said.
- "The train and equip mission is, in fact, a huge undertaking, and there is nothing easy about it; however, the past year alone has seen Afghan forces grow by over one-third, adding some 70,000 soldiers and police. And those forces have grown in quality, not just in quantity," Petraeus said.
The beginning of the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan figures to be a huge political event. President Obama announced in a speech at West Point in December 2009 that he would send an additional 30,000 troops for a temporary surge, then begin a conditions-based withdrawal in July 2011.
Obama was criticized for this from both ends of the political spectrum. Supporters of the war accused him of telegraphing strategy to the Taliban; opponents of it questioned just how many troops would come home, and whether the announcement of a gradual "withdrawal" was just for political show, as polls reflected growing dissatisfaction.
Members of the Democratic National Committee last month sought to pressure Obama, passing a resolution calling for a "swift" withdrawal. Democratic senators are pushing a bill that would require Obama to submit a redeployment plan to Congress, including a hard end-date.
Petraeus, meanwhile, took over as top U.S. commander in Afghanistan in June, after the firing of Gen. Stanley McChrystal following the publication of Michael Hastings' profile of him in Rolling Stone. A Petraeus appearance on Capitol Hill used to draw spectators; today, as National Journal's Yochi Dreazen pointed out on Twitter, only 16 reporters showed up, and the hearing room was nearly empty.
Nearly two thirds (64 percent) of Americans say the war in Afghanistan isn't worth fighting, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll taken last Thursday and Friday.
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