Afghanistan war can yet be won, US general tells Congress

The commander of US forces in Afghanistan outlined three achievements that would secure a 'win' after 11 years of combat – acknowledging none is yet in hand. He gave Congress a report Tuesday on the war's progress. 

Jason Reed / Pool / AP
U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (r.) speaks with Gen. Joseph Dunford, commander of the International Security Force in Kabul, Afghanistan, on March 11, 2013. Dunford testified on Capitol Hill today, telling lawmakers that he would keep using the word 'win' when discussing U.S. prospects in Afghanistan.

Is it still possible for the United States to “win” the war in Afghanistan, which, at 11 years, is the longest war in US history?

Yes is the assessment of Gen. Joseph Dunford, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, who was on Capitol Hill Tuesday testifying on the progress of the war.

It is not the sort of portrait of victory Pentagon officials had envisioned at the war’s start – and may even be a victory that defies the definition of the word. 

Still, Dunford told lawmakers, he is determined to keep using the word “win.”

“For the last few years, many people have shied away from using the word ‘win.’ I personally have used that word since arriving in Afghanistan,” he said. “I frankly think that when we’re talking to 18-, 19-, 20-, 21-year-old soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines, we ought to talk in those terms.”

He went on to describe what "win" might look like: Afghan national security forces (ANSF) taking over the “lead” in security operations in 2014 “is an important component of winning, and I think we have a plan that’s in place to do that.”

What, precisely, it means for ANSF to take the lead in security operations has changed frequently over the years.

At one time, commanders spoke of the goal of ANSF units operating “independently.” Military officials rarely use that word anymore, however. 

That’s because only one Afghan National Army brigade in the country’s military currently operates “Independent with Advisors,” a somewhat oxymoronic label that is now the highest rating that any ANA unit can achieve. 

It’s unclear how many more brigades will be able to achieve that rating, given the current attrition rate in the Afghan Army, which continues to present “a significant challenge,” Dunford acknowledged. 

The attrition rate amounts to a loss of 5,000 troops per month, or 60,000 a year. “Vacancies are not always filled quickly or with properly trained personnel,” he added. “The ANA’s sustained high attrition rates remain a significant concern and threaten the growth and development of a professional, competent, and capable force.” 

Dunford described another “important component of our winning,” which is “to ensure that we deny sanctuary to Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and we contribute to regional stability where we have national interests.”

On that front, some problems remain, particularly when it comes to the Taliban, which Dunford describes as “enablers” of Al Qaeda.

“Safe havens in Afghanistan and sanctuaries in Pakistan continue to provide Taliban senior leadership some freedom of movement and freedom of action, facilitating the training of fighters and the planning of operations,” he told lawmakers.

As a result, the Taliban “remain firm in their conviction that ISAF’s [International Security and Assistance Force's] drawdown and perceived ANSF weakness, especially when supplemented with continued external support and with sanctuary in Pakistan that the Taliban exploit, will translate into a restoration of the pre-'surge' military capabilities and influence.”

Even more problematic, after more than a decade of US military intervention, is the continued tie between Al Qaeda and the Taliban, he said. “Despite effective counterterrorism pressure on Al Qaeda and its Taliban enablers, and on the small number of Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda’s relationship with local Afghan Taliban remains intact,” the general said.

Dunford argued that the 62,000 US troops still in Afghanistan should continue to fight until at least November, when their presence will again be evaluated. 

At the end of 2014, if US troops can “effect security transition, effect political transition, and deny Al Qaeda sanctuary,” Dunford said – acknowledging that none of these goals has yet been accomplished – “we can look at the families and the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines that have served over the last 11 years and say we won because we provided the Afghans the opportunity to seize the decade of opportunity that starts in 2015.”

After that, he concluded, “it very much at that point is up to the Afghans.” 

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