The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan testified on Wednesday morning that the international military effort in that country is entering a decisive stage, with the U.S. military transitioning its operations and the U.S. government seeking a new bilateral security agreement.
Gen. Joseph Dunford, commander of United States and international forces in Afghanistan, repeatedly returned to the importance of the bilateral security agreement throughout the two hour hearing before the House Armed Services Committee.
"The future of Afghanistan is linked to the bilateral security agreement," Dunford said.
The U.S. security mandate in Afghanistan expires in December 2014; many in Afghanistan are viewing this date as decisive for the future of the country.
Dunford said after the hearing the negotiations for the security agreement are "very mature at this point"—a point he set in contrast to the failed negotiations for a bilateral security agreement in Iraq, where negotiators started too late.
The failed attempt to secure a bilateral security agreement in Iraq led to the full withdrawal of American troops. Some experts have attributed the withdrawal to that nation’s subsequent decline in stability and security.
Afghanistan’s stability has implications for both the region’s stability and vital U.S. interests, Dunford said.
"From my perspective, what would really be dangerous is for us to not finish the job in Afghanistan and to leave a sanctuary in Afghanistan from which Pakistan could be destabilized," Dunford said.
The possibility that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of militant extremists in the region poses a great threat to America’s core national security concerns, Dunford said.
President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel have all had contact with Afghan President Hamid Karzai recently about the security agreement currently under negotiation, Dunford said.
As the negotiations are underway and the military is in the process of drawing down half its troops by this time next year, U.S. forces are transitioning from a more active combat role to a support role for Afghan forces.
Afghan troops are leading 80 percent of missions right now, and by the summer, they will be leading all missions, Dunford said.
He also said that the military is shifting its focus for training Afghan forces from increasing the sheer number of troops to improving the quality of the troops.
U.S. and Afghan troops have also seen successes on the battlefield, Dunford said. Eighty percent of violence occurs in areas where 20 percent of the country’s population lives, a sign the Taliban and al Qaeda have been pushed from the country’s population centers. Additionally, al Qaeda’s forces in Afghanistan are not able to operate successfully outside of the country.
NATO has given guidance for 8,000 to 12,000 troops to remain in Afghanistan after 2014, Dunford said. The troops would both help maintain security in the country and assist in the political transition and economic development, and this number would allow international forces to be in all four corners of the country and in Kabul, Dunford said.
The hearing was subdued and few congressmen used their full five minutes for questions. One congressman noted that a few years ago, such a hearing would have been filled to capacity.
The legislators asked about various parts of the military’s operations in Afghanistan, from the logistics of withdrawal to enemy infiltration of the Afghan military. Many of them indicated they had visited Afghanistan and were pleased with the progress they are seeing.
Committee chairman Buck McKeon (R., Calif.) noted eight million children, many of them girls, are going to school now in Afghanistan, in contrast to only one million at the beginning of the way.
McKeon expressed optimism about the future of Afghanistan.
"That could become a very prosperous country, a very good story in the future," McKeon said.