The U.S. has stopped the Taliban’s momentum in Afghanistan, the general leading that war told Congress on Tuesday morning, and key senators agreed that the goal of handing off security responsibilities to Afghan forces by 2014 is achievable.
“The past eight months have seen important but hard-fought progress in Afghanistan,” Gen. David H. Petraeus told the Senate Armed Services Committee as he testified alongside Michele Flournoy, the undersecretary of Defense for policy. “Key insurgent save havens have been taken away from the Taliban, numerous insurgent leaders have been killed or captured, and hundreds of reconcilable midlevel leaders and fighters have been reintegrated into Afghan society.”
Flournoy added, “Our strategy is working.”
But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) asked Petraeus to respond to a Los Angeles Times report Tuesday quoting U.S. intelligence officials who painted a sobering picture of the military situation in Afghanistan.
“I don’t think there’s any question about the tactical successes that the ... forces led by Gen. Petraeus have enjoyed, particularly in light of the surge,” National Intelligence Director James R. Clapper told Congress last week, the Times reported. “I think the issue, the concern that the intelligence community has, is after that, and the ability of the Afghan government to pick up their responsibility for governance.”
At that hearing, Gen. Ronald Burgess, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, offered a stark view -- one that is shared by the CIA, U.S. officials say.
“The Taliban in the south has shown resilience and still influences much of the population, particularly outside urban areas,” Burgess said, speaking of a region where the U.S. has been focusing many of its resources.
The U.S.-led coalition has been killing Taliban militants by the hundreds, he said, but there has been “no apparent degradation in their capacity to fight.” The Taliban does remain resilient and will be able to threaten U.S. and international goals in Afghanistan through 2011,” he said.
Asked about those remarks, and the notion that they contrasted with his “optimism,” Petraeus responded, “With respect, I have tried to avoid what might be labeled optimism or pessimism, and have tried to provide realism.” He said his testimony about improvements represented “reality on the ground,” as he sees it.
He added, “There is no question that government capacity is an area of, in a sense, strategic risk.” He acknowledged that the Afghan government was unable to take over the civilian aid projects that are being undertaken by the U.S. and the international community.
He then launched into a long narrative about his efforts to help the Afghan government with budgeting.
Petraeus did not respond to Burgess’ argument that the tactical military gains have not undermined the Taliban as a fighting force.
McCain also asked the general about a new Washington Post-ABC News poll showing that nearly two-thirds of respondents now say the war in Afghanistan is no longer worth fighting, the highest proportion yet lacking confidence in the effort.
“I can understand the frustration,” Petraeus said. “We have been at this for 10 years. We have spent an enormous amount of money, we have sustained very tough losses and difficult, life changing wounds. ... But I think it is important to remember why we are there. That is where 9/11 began, that’s where the plan was made.”
He added, “It is only recently that we have gotten the inputs right in Afghanistan,” and “I think this is, as President Obama has said, a vital national interest.”
Earlier, Petraeus and Flournoy did acknowledge that the gains are “fragile and reversible,” as Petraeus put it, and that hard fighting lies ahead.
Sen. Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the Armed Services Committee—and who vigorously opposed President George W. Bush’s surge in Iraq, led by Petraeus—expressed confidence that things were improving in Afghanistan.
Petraeus’ counter-insurgency strategy, Levin said, has been “instrumental” in “turning the tide.”