Clinton Says Afghanistan Security Transition ‘On Track’

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said today that the effort to hand over responsibility for security to Afghan forces is on track as she described the progress made in bringing stability to Afghanistan.

“The transition is on track,” Clinton said at the start of the U.S.-Afghanistan Bilateral Commission today. The strategic partnership “will help guide the relationship as it moves to the next phase,” Clinton said. She outlined progress in health, education, media freedom and women’s rights in the country.

Many other Afghan experts, including some in the U.S. military, the intelligence community, and Clinton’s own State Department, quietly disagree. They say the U.S. and its coalition partners haven’t made sufficient progress training self-sufficient Afghan forces, improving governance, curbing corruption, and eliminating insurgent safe havens in Pakistan to claim that coalition combat forces will be able to withdraw from a stable Afghanistan by the end of 2014 as planned.

Anthony Cordesman of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies concluded in June that, “the odds of ‘success’ in creating a stable, secure, and democratic Afghanistan moving towards economic development on a national regional basis by 2014 -- or even 2020 -- are less than even. If ‘success’ is further defined in terms of adherence to modern values of human rights and rule of law, respected throughout the country, then the odds of ‘success’ seem bad to negligible.”

‘Difficult Days’

Clinton, speaking at the State Department with Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul, acknowledged past difficulties and the likelihood of more ahead. “These past few months in particular have presented obstacles and some potential setbacks,” Clinton said, “and we know that difficult days lie ahead.”

Whatever challenges lie ahead, the U.S. will stay the course with Afghanistan, Clinton said, noting that commitment was “forged in sacrifice.”

“Just a short time ago, we reached a grim milestone: 2,000 U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan,” Clinton said. “The American people have invested a great deal in Afghanistan’s future and, even though our role in Afghanistan is changing, this partnership will continue.”

Insurgent Strength

About 5,000 insurgents have been reintegrated into civil society, an effort that could become a “game-changer if and when the political process takes off,” said British Army Lieutenant General Adrian Bradshaw, the deputy commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, who spoke to reporters at the Pentagon today by satellite.

He estimated the size of the remaining insurgency at 30,000 to 35,000, though he said such estimates are “not completely reliable.” There is general agreement on that, at least, as U.S. officials have said that some insider attacks on coalition forces have been carried out by Afghans working for the coalition by day and the Taliban by night, much as the communist Viet Cong did during the Vietnam War.

Bradshaw also said coalition and Afghan forces are uniting in an effort to crack down on such “green-on-blue” attacks. At least 51 coalition troops have died in such attacks so far this year, compared with 35 last year, according to ISAF in Kabul.

Bradshaw today at first downplayed the problem, saying insider attacks “account for just over 4 percent of our casualties.” He subsequently acknowledged that they account for about 20 percent of coalition troops killed in action, while the 4 percent figure includes troops who were wounded.

Casualties Decline

“We are all very seized with the need to grip this problem,” he said. “It’s a tragedy when we lose our people for any reason. But for this reason it is particularly hurtful, and must be incredibly difficult for people to accept or understand.”

Still, Bradshaw said, the total number of coalition casualties has been reduced by about 40 percent compared to last year, and the coalition remains on track to withdraw all combat forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

“As we move forward through the security forces assistance model, we gradually disengage from the Afghan forces and the risk will become less and less,” he said.

Bradshaw said Afghan President Hamid Karzai held a national security council meeting a few weeks ago in which he instructed his forces to crack down on the threat of insider attacks.

“This was real leadership right from the top, and it made an immediate impact on his people,” Bradshaw said.

Even so, the insider attacks continue. Two Americans were killed over the weekend in a suspected insider attack, only two days after joint operations between U.S. and Afghan forces were said to be returning to normal.

‘Morale Threat’

Bradshaw said he could offer no more details on the most recent attack because it remains under investigation.

“The threat that this represents to the mission is more of a morale threat than a physical threat,” he said. “And that’s why we take it very seriously.”

While saying the mission remains on track, Bradshaw stopped short of promising that the insurgency would be vanquished by the time coalition combat troops leave.

“My prognosis is that at the end of 2014, the insurgency will be further reduced,” Bradshaw said. “It’ll still be a challenge for security forces, but it’s one that I think they will be more than adequately able to match.”