Washington — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says the United States and coalition partners have made significant progress in improving security and handing over responsibilities to national security forces in Afghanistan.
Speaking at a NATO defense ministers conference October 10, Panetta said a surge of U.S. and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) forces has concluded and was successful in regaining control of ground under Taliban insurgent control in 2011 and preventing the Taliban from regaining any of those areas. In addition, the surge forces were successful in pushing the Taliban out of even more areas in 2012, he said.
“Compared to a year ago, more Afghans are secure, and the conflict has moved farther away from the population centers,” Panetta said during a briefing for journalists. In addition, Afghan security forces have now grown to approximately 350,000 men, recruitment and retention is remaining steady, and these new forces have taken on greater security responsibilities, including a willingness to take the fight to the insurgency, he said.
The defense ministers met at NATO headquarters in Brussels for updates on operations in Afghanistan and to discuss the way ahead in the phased transition to full Afghan security control by the end of 2014. It was Panetta’s fifth meeting with the defense ministers as secretary of defense and the first meeting for the ministers following the 2012 Chicago NATO Summit.
Panetta told journalists that with the surge complete, the United States and NATO-led security forces have reached a critical moment for the alliance in Afghanistan. He said that there are three keys to future success.
First, the coalition must maintain a strong partnership with the Afghan forces, Panetta said. “We must do everything we can to help Afghan security forces successfully transition and take the lead for security throughout all of Afghanistan as planned next year,” he said.
That includes, he added, building the capabilities of the Afghan army and police by providing security force assistance teams with embedded trainers and mentors. Panetta said during a press briefing in Brussels that an additional 58 military training teams are needed, and that was discussed at length by the defense ministers in Brussels.
Second, Panetta said the U.S. and NATO-led security forces must provide an effective response to insider attacks — in which Afghans or insurgents masquerading as Afghan security personnel kill or attack allied forces. “Insider attacks are a tragic part of every war, and the enemy exploits them to undermine mutual trust and cohesion,” Panetta told reporters. Marine General John Allen and Panetta briefed coalition leaders on steps being taken alongside Afghan military partners to diminish and defeat the threat posed by insider attacks.
“These steps include enhancing training, adapting our partnership based on real-time threat information, expansion of vetting and counterintelligence operations, and the use of guardian angels to deter and stop attackers,” Panetta said. “Partnership even closer will frustrate the enemy’s designs to capitalize on this problem.”
Allen is slated to become the next commander of the U.S. European Command and also NATO supreme allied commander. He will succeed Navy Admiral James Stavridis. Marine General Joseph Dunford is expected to succeed Allen as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and also commander of ISAF.
Finally, Panetta said that the U.S. and allied forces working with Afghan forces must carefully conduct the campaign plan.
“As we look to the mid-2013 milestone, and to the end of the transition in December of 2014, we anticipate that we will operate from fewer bases, that the net flow of materiel will turn outbound from Afghanistan, that U.S. enabler support for ISAF partners will continue, but the scope of support will change as the transition proceeds and as we jointly reduce our forces, and that as Afghan forces assume full responsibility, ISAF forces will continue stepping back,” Panetta said.
Panetta said that while NATO has not determined the size and composition of the force that will remain in Afghanistan after 2014, “NATO’s presence should be steadfast and effective.”
Regardless of what tactics the insurgents may throw at U.S. and allied forces, they will not allow that to divert forces from their mission or divide them from Afghan partners, he added.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters that the transition of security responsibility to the Afghan forces is progressing according to the timeline established by NATO in agreement with the Afghan government.
“We’re on track to complete it by the end of 2014 when our combat mission will come to an end,” Rasmussen said. “We must ensure we keep up the momentum of transition and continue to build professional and strong Afghan security forces capable of securing their own country.”
Rasmussen told the assembled defense ministers from NATO nations and allied nations, representing a total of 50 countries, that there will not be any acceleration of the drawdown in forces ahead of the timeline.