Gen. Joseph F. Dunford is the commander of the International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces Afghanistan. ()
Twelve years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, more than 50,000 U.S. service members still serve in Afghanistan. As we reflect on our mission here to protect vital national interests, it is important to revisit the reasons we came, recount what we’ve accomplished and outline what remains to be done.
After the horrific attacks that killed 2,977 innocent men, women and children, the U.S. and a coalition of international forces began military operations in Afghanistan. It was those attacks, planned by al-Qaeda from its sanctuary in Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban, which brought us to Afghanistan. In responding, our objective was to prevent the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations from which attacks could be launched on the U.S. or our allies. In 2001, we put U.S. forces in harm's way because it was in our national interests to do so. In 2013, U.S. forces remain in Afghanistan because our national interests have not changed.
Since 2001, we have accomplished a great deal. We have put extraordinary pressure on al-Qaeda and its associated insurgent networks. Operations in Afghanistan have disrupted al-Qaeda's ability to plan and conduct operations from within the country; operations here have also disrupted al-Qaeda in other locations. Yet, al-Qaeda in the region remains determined to attack the West. Continued pressure on extremist networks in Afghanistan will be necessary to secure our interests in the future.
While U.S. and coalition forces have been necessary to pressure extremist networks in the past decade, Afghan forces will be the mechanism to secure Afghanistan in future decades. In recent years, Afghan forces have become increasingly capable and confident. In June, they reached a milestone when they assumed the lead for security nationwide. For the first time since 2001, U.S. and coalition forces are now in a supporting role, serving as trainers and advisers to the Afghans.
A credible ANSF is critical in setting conditions for a durable political solution to this conflict. A bi-lateral security agreement, successful political transition, improved Afghan-Pakistan relations and an inclusive national reconciliation effort will provide all Afghans the opportunity to determine their political future after over three decades of conflict.
Afghan forces have shown that they can hold their own against the Taliban and other insurgent networks. They are planning, coordinating, and executing combat operations, including more than 1,000 patrols every day. In recent days they have conducted 35 specific operations at their battalion level and above and they're conducting special operations missions across the country. Today, 80 percent of the population is generally secure from violence. Most attacks occur outside the major population centers.
There is also growing confidence in the security forces by the Afghan people. In recent surveys, a vast majority of the Afghan people have expressed confidence in the Afghan Army and police.
To secure these gains, we must continue to build functional expertise into the Afghan forces and security ministries so they may operate effectively after coalition forces leave. Over the past few years, we rapidly fielded Afghan forces with a priority on getting them into the fight. Now, we have shifted our focus to quality and sustainability. In order for the Afghan forces to secure their nation after the withdrawal of U.S. and coalition combat forces in December 2014, we must assist the Afghans in developing the systems, processes and institutions necessary to support a modern Army and police force. They need continued assistance with intelligence, aviation and logistics. This focus on building the sustainability of Afghan forces will require far fewer U.S. troops than we have deployed today. However, it will require continued commitment and resources for some time to come.
Beginning in January 2015, U.S. and coalition forces will begin a new but significantly smaller mission called Resolute Support, which will focus on completing the development of Afghan security institutions. Americans serving as advisers will help the Afghans develop the expertise and capacity for functions such as planning, budgeting, logistics and intelligence. With a relatively small footprint, the U.S. and our coalition partners will cement our hard-fought gains and make sure what we've done over the past 12 years is enduring.
While Afghanistan still faces many challenges, it is headed in the right direction toward a peaceful, stable and unified outcome. A political solution will be needed to end decades of war in Afghanistan. We can best support an outcome that protects our national interests by remaining engaged in this region, supporting the Afghan people and the ANSF, holding the Afghan government accountable for needed reforms, and facilitating a diplomatic solution to the conflict.
The cost of continued engagement in Afghanistan will not be small and must be balanced with our many other commitments. As we found out on 9/11, however, the cost of neglect can be far larger.
Dunford is the commander of the International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces Afghanistan. This column originally appeared in USA Today.