The Taliban-led insurgency will direct most of its intense combat this year against Afghan security forces rather than U.S. and NATO troops, the top U.S. military official said.
Given the “steady and gradual decline” in the 66,000-strong U.S. force projected for this year, the Afghan military will bear a greater share of the attacks, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey told reporters at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany yesterday.
Asked about the upcoming fighting season, Dempsey referred to statements from Taliban leaders vowing that 2013 would be an “intense year.” He pointed to casualty figures in January, the first month in 19 that not a single U.S. or coalition member was killed, while 25 Afghan soldiers died.
“Here’s what’s different -- this is the first summer in which the Afghan Security Forces are literally in the lead,” Dempsey said. “That intensity will be directed principally toward them” and potentially “change the internal discourse” as local security casualties increase, he said.
“This will be the first summer we’ll see how it changes,” he said. “We’ll be there with them. What really hangs in the balance now is the confidence level of the Afghan Security Forces and its people, so that’s why we’ve got to sustain our presence for the next two years.”
Dempsey is traveling to Afghanistan for a change-of-command ceremony today that will see U.S. Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford replace Marine General John Allen as the top North Atlantic Treaty Organization commander in Afghanistan. Allen is President Barack Obama’s nominee to serve as Supreme Allied Commander of NATO and U.S. Forces in Europe.
Obama said after meeting with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai earlier this month that “coalition forces will move to a support role this spring” as Afghans take the lead. Obama has pledged to remove most of the U.S. forces by the end of 2014.
Dempsey yesterday called the Afghan troops “capable fighters.” As of the end of September, only one Afghan brigade out of 23 was considered capable of operating independently, even with the help of advisers, according to a Pentagon report to Congress in December.
Asked about his impression of U.S.-Pakistan military relations and that country’s willingness to attack Taliban havens along its northwestern border with Afghanistan, Dempsey said he has seen “encouraging” signs of cooperation.
The Pakistanis “finally believe we are not just going to shut out the lights and leave at the end of 2014,” Dempsey said. “I think they see a viable partnership between them, us and the Afghans. Co-operation at the tactical level has improved, and I think it is migrating to the operational level” between U.S. and Pakistani commanders.
Cooperation has extended beyond border posts to greater coordination between “higher level commanders,” he said. “We are sensing a greater recognition on Pakistan’s part that the terrorism threat” poses as much of a peril to that country as it does to the U.S., he said.
Dempsey said he’d never recommend withdrawing all U.S. troops after 2014, an option White House officials mentioned last month in a briefing with reporters. He said a presidential announcement on the size, scope and pace of the U.S. drawdown this year must come soon given it’s already February.
Dempsey said discussions between the U.S. and Afghan governments over the agreement that will spell out legal immunity for U.S. troops, a key to a final pact, are “going pretty well.”
Asked about the prospects of political reconciliation with the Taliban, Dempsey said the group is discussing its next move.
“Their behavior appears to be migrating toward becoming a political factor” and “less an internal security threat,” he said. While that’s “encouraging,” the Taliban hasn’t made a major shift at this point, he said.
“There will be irreconcilable parts of the Taliban that are just so ideologically skewed that the idea of any concession is just anathema to them,” while other factions will be “willing to become part of the political landscape, and not part of the security landscape,” he said.