The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan told Congress that the surge in Afghanistan is working, but repeatedly cautioned the “hard-fought” gains were far from secure and the road ahead would be difficult.
“The momentum achieved by the Taliban in Afghanistan since 2005 has been arrested in much of the country and reversed in a number of important areas,” General David Petraeus said, in a testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.
“While the security progress achieved over the past year is significant, it is also fragile and reversible. It is clear that much work lies ahead to solidify gains in the face of the expected Taliban spring offensive,” he added.
Petraeus, however, did not specify how many troops would withdraw this summer or from what areas of Afghanistan, saying he did not want to pre-empt a speech by Afghani President Hamid Karzai next week detailing a plan to transfer authority to Afghan security forces in select provinces.
Most analysts expect support troops, not combat troops, to be the first to leave Afghanistan.
Petraeus and Undersecretary of Defense for policy Michele Flournoy, who testified alongside him, also stressed that U.S. forces would remain past the 2014 deadline as part of the “enduring strategic partnership” between the U.S. and Afghanistan that U.S. President Obama and Karzai have already discussed.
Flournoy said that "withdrawal conditions-based” and determined by the “pace on the ground.”
The congressional hearings come at a time when support for the war in Afghanistan is at an all-time low in the U.S. According to a recent poll by the Washington Post and ABC, two thirds of Americans say the war is no longer worth fighting.
Senator Joseph Lieberman, an independent lawmaker who supports the troop surge, attributed the lack of support to an American preoccupation with “the economy, jobs, the deficit.” Nonetheless, funding for the Afghanistan budget, which has cost the U.S. $80 billion in 2011 alone, is not in jeopardy for now.
Citing successes in training programs for Afghan soldiers and police, including the addition of 70,000 trained personnel in the past year, Petraeus said he has requested resources to increase Afghan security forces to no fewer than 352,000.
One of the major challenges the expanded development programs will address is illiteracy, in hopes of bringing the force to the rudimentary level of reading and writing necessary for administering local laws.
According to Petraeus, between 50,000 and 60,000 security personnel have already been taught basic literacy in current training programs.
Petraeus also highlighted significant achievements in reconciling former members of the Taliban back into Afghan society, a key focus of U.S. and Afghan efforts. He claimed 700 have fully reintegrated and 2000 are in the process of ceding their arms and foreswearing the Taliban.
Long praised for leading U.S. forces during the Iraq surge, Petraeus assumed command in Afghanistan after the resignation of Gen. Stanley McChrystal for controversial remarks about the Obama Administration’s handling of the war.
Petraeus, one of the most decorated generals currently serving in the U.S. military, is considered a likely successor to Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, and rumors of a bid for the Presidency have floated alongside his name in recent years.
When asked about continuing the decade-long war in Afghanistan despite the enormous costs and lack of public support, Petraeus answered: “We did leave the region in the past. In the wake of Charlie Wilson’s war, we headed home and we cut off funding . . . And the fact is we have paid for that in the long run. And I think it would be a mistake, a big mistake, to go down that road again.”