WASHINGTON – The commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan delivered an upbeat assessment of progress in the nation, while also acknowledging there is much that needs to be done.
Army Gen. John F. Campbell told the Senate Armed Services Committee this morning that there is a new atmosphere in the Afghan capital of Kabul, and that Afghan forces are succeeding in the struggle against the Taliban and affiliated terror groups.
“Afghanistan, the region, the enemy and our coalition have undergone tremendous transition and most of this has been extraordinarily positive for us,” Campbell said.
Peaceful Transition of Power
In September, Afghanistan completed its first peaceful transition of power when Hamid Karzai gave way to new Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
“The difference between the new national unity government and its predecessor is night and day,” the general said. “President Ghani and [Chief Executive Officer] Abdullah embrace the international community, our coalition and the Afghan security forces.”
A sign of that was the new president signing a bilateral security agreement with the United States and other members of the Operation Resolute Support coalition.
Campbell sees the new Afghan leadership as providing the opportunity for a long-lasting strategic partnership with Afghanistan that would benefit the region and the United States. The Afghan government remains in transition and Ghani has asked the United States and NATO for flexibility moving forward.
“I have provided options for adjusting our force posture through my chain of command,” the general said. “The issue is, how long do we stay engaged at the regional level in the transition year of 2015?”
The dynamics in the region are trending toward greater cooperation and coordination, Campbell said. The Taliban attack on a school in Peshawar that killed 132 young boys galvanized anti-terrorism sentiment in Pakistan, he said.
“Senior Pakistani officials realized they could no longer make a distinction between good and bad terrorists,” Campbell said. “In the wake of the tragedy, the ‘blame game’ between the two countries has stopped.”
Campbell said he is seeing improvements on the ground in Afghanistan as Afghan and Pakistani soldiers work together to get at extremist sanctuaries on both sides of the border.
“While we must temper our expectations, I remain optimistic that both countries are working toward a more productive relationship,” he said.
The Taliban failed to meet any of its objectives in 2014, Campbell said. The enemy was under constant pressure from Afghan forces and lost support from the Afghan people. They could only hit soft targets that caused a lot of publicity, but little else, the general said.
“The possible rise of Daesh — or ISIL — is also a new development,” he said. “Thus far we think the presence of Daesh in Afghanistan represents more of a rebranding of a few marginalized Taliban. But we are still taking this potential threat, with its dangerous rhetoric and ideology, very, very seriously.”
Campbell said his command is working with all nations of the area to make sure Daesh does not establish a foothold in Asia.
Train, Advise, Assist Mission
On Jan. 1, NATO’s International Security Assistance Command folded its flag — the combat mission for coalition forces was over. Afghan forces had full control of the security environment in the country. But the mission to train, advise and assist Afghan forces began.
Campbell assessed the Afghan forces as making good progress. For the second year in a row, Afghan forces held the line against the Taliban. “On the battlefield the [Afghan national security forces] fought courageously and displayed their increasing capabilities,” the general said.
The Afghan people trust the security forces — especially the Army — and recruiting is not a problem for the force, he said. “On balance, after watching the ANSF respond to a variety of challenges over the past six months, I don’t believe the insurgents represent an existential threat to the government of Afghanistan,” Campbell said.
Afghan security forces continue to grow, yet still need coalition assistance for logistics, maintenance, aviation and special operations, Campbell said.
“To address these gaps, the train and assist mission and mentorship will be vital,” he said.