Afghan Forces Struggle to Hold Land, Defense Agency Says

Afghanistan’s security forces are struggling to improve their combat capability as the U.S. withdraws intelligence, reconnaissance and bomb-detection technologies, according to the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency.

The 340,000 members of the Afghan National Army and police “have shown progress in their ability to clear insurgents from contested areas but have exhibited problems holding cleared areas long-term,” Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, director of the Pentagon intelligence agency, said in testimony prepared for a Senate hearing tomorrow.

Flynn’s prepared remarks, obtained in advance by Bloomberg News, underscore the fragility of Afghan security as the U.S. and its allies continue to withdraw forces and press President Hamid Karzai to sign an agreement permitting a continued international presence after this year. Flynn’s assessment is in sharp contrast to assurances by top U.S. commanders in the field that Afghan forces are increasingly ready to take over.

Afghan forces “struggle due to the lack of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance,” as well as expertise and technology for countering improvised roadside bombs, Flynn said. Senior Taliban leaders “likely believe that they only need to continue” their present level of attacks “to be postured for victory” following a withdrawal of U.S. and allied troops and technology, he said.

Karzai’s Successor

Flynn also cited uncertainty about the outcome of elections planned for April to choose Karzai’s successor.

“The lack of a consensus candidate could lead to a potentially destabilizing runoff election that would occur during the peak” of the insurgent fighting season and the U.S.- led alliance’s drawdown, he said.

As of January 28, 2,306 Americans had been killed in Afghanistan since the U.S. invaded the country after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and 19,638 had been wounded.

Flynn’s testimony was part of the annual threat assessment that U.S. intelligence agencies present to congressional committees. Citing the continued global threat of terrorism, Flynn said an al-Qaeda offshoot probably will try to seize territory in Iraq and Syria this year.

The unrest in both countries may strengthen the group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, he said.

While many Sunnis remain opposed to al-Qaeda, they “appear willing to work tactically” with it because “they share common anti-government goals,” Flynn said.

Iraq ‘Heavy-Handed’

In Iraq -- where 4,489 Americans were killed and 32,238 were wounded from the March 2003 U.S. invasion to the withdrawal of all American forces at the end of 2011 -- President Nouri Kamil al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government’s “continued heavy-handed approach to counterterror operations” has led some Sunni tribes “to be more permissive” of al-Qaeda, Flynn said.

In Syria, al-Qaeda forces may try to acquire the war-torn country’s chemical weapons if security fails as those stockpiles are rounded up to be destroyed, Flynn said. The movement of convoys carrying the weapons for disposal “could provide an opportunity for one or more of these” groups to try to obtain them, he said.

While the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his military “remain cohesive,” Syrian government forces also are “stretched thin by constant operations,” he said.

China’s Spending

On China, Flynn said its military spending was as much as $240 billion in 2013, compared with official figures of $119.5 billion.

China also is expanding its role as a supplier of advanced conventional weapons, he said, “supplementing its traditional exports of basic battlefield equipment such as small arms, artillery and armored vehicles to include more advanced examples of long-range multiple-launch rocket artillery, improved surface-to-air missile systems and anti-ship cruise missiles, and unmanned aerial vehicles, several of which are armed variants,” he said.

While Iran has continued to support its irregular forces, it’s also “steadily improving” traditional military capabilities, according to Flynn.

With the addition of faster, more lethal surface vessels and submarines, Iran is seeking to expand the reach of its naval forces, he said. The Iranian navy “conducted its farthest out-of-area deployment to date in March 2013, docking in China, and for the first time ever an Iranian submarine visited India in December 2013.”

He said the Iranian navy “aspires to travel as far as the Atlantic Ocean.”

White House spokesman Jay Carney today said there was no evidence to support Iranian news reports that the Islamic Republic was sending ships toward U.S. maritime borders.

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