ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT —
By both NATO and Afghan accounts, the past year “has been surprisingly positive” for the Afghan national security forces, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said.
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey told reporters traveling with him to Afghanistan that both NATO and Afghan leaders underestimated the abilities of the Afghan security forces -- forces that didn’t really exist a few years ago.
Since taking the lead throughout the country last year, Afghan forces have done very well, the chairman said. The Taliban had a handful of objectives, he added: to reclaim territory, to use several high-profile attacks to return to prominence, and to discredit the Afghan security forces.
The Taliban obviously didn’t have much success, Dempsey said. They never retook territory, they launched few large attacks in the Afghan capital of Kabul, and they have not discredited the security forces. The question now is not how the Afghan forces are doing, he said, but rather how the upcoming Afghan election will come off, and whether there will be a political system to embrace the Afghan forces and their progress in the months ahead.
Afghan forces are in charge of April’s presidential election, providing the security with NATO forces staying far to the rear. Plans now call for limited NATO support for logistics.
The NATO combat mission ends at the end of the year. A follow-on NATO mission -- Operation Resolute Support -- begins Jan. 1, and it calls for NATO forces to stay engaged at the regional level helping to train, advise and assist Afghan army and police formations. It also calls for providing assistance at the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of the Interior in Kabul.
Before this can happen, Afghan officials must sign the bilateral security agreement that they negotiated with the United States and which a national council of tribal and family elders approved. Afghan President Hamid Karzai said he will leave it to his successor to sign the document. Once the U.S.-Afghan agreement is signed, NATO will negotiate a similar pact.
NATO needs the agreement to legally remain in Afghanistan beyond this year. Dempsey said the “shot clock” is running down, and there is a point at which the regional approach may no longer be feasible. “What I don’t want to do is run out of options for our elected leaders or for Afghanistan,” he said.
Dempsey noted he has made many visits to Afghanistan. “What I’m always struck by is that many of us -- our NATO partners and us -- continue to change jobs,” he said. “So there is always something new to learn, to see, to talk about. But I also end up speaking with the same Afghans time after time after time.”
The chairman said he had the same experience when he served in Iraq. “My counterpart in Iraq has been the chief of defense for eight years,” the chairman said. “So when I would come back to him and talk about what’s new, I’m not sure he could see what was new as readily as I could. But I don’t think I could see what isn’t new as readily as he can.”
The same is true in Afghanistan. “It has always been our challenge to knit those two together -- our ability to see things as they are changing, and maybe our partner’s ability to see the continuity of things,” he said.
Dempsey said he does have some clarity on the retrograde movement out of Afghanistan.
“Our ability to retrograde the entire thing -- should we need to, and which would be unfortunate -- we could retrograde with relatively low risk, given the time available,” he said. “As the time continues to expire, the risk on our ability to retrograde increases, and that’s another thing I need to look them in the eye to make sure I understand it fully.”
(Follow Jim Garamone on Twitter: @GaramoneAFPS)