Marine Gen. John Allen, the commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan and the overall NATO military mission there, appeared before the House Armed Services Committee this morning to give a rare administration update on the war. Much of the morning’s proceedings — which are likely to be repeated before the Senate on Thursday — focused on the prospective transition to a lead Afghan security responsibility by 2014, and in his testimony, Allen sought to portray a military campaign that, despite recent high-profile crises, was “on track” to achieve that target.
The approaching 2014 date has clearly had a forcing effect on both Afghan and U.S. agencies’ planning efforts, as over the past year, initially sketchy notions of what transition might entail have given way to more detailed plans for troop withdrawals and the establishment of Afghan army and police units. Allen deflected efforts by Congress to pin down his recommendation for any additional U.S. force reductions past this fall, when U.S. troops are scheduled to drop to approximately 68,000. However some reports suggest that the administration will opt to continue the pace of drawdown with another 30,000 service members withdrawn by next summer.
A few committee members made efforts to press Allen and his fellow panelist Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Jim Miller on the issue, but questions about the sustainability of the Afghan national security forces — whose annual operations and maintenance costs at current force levels far exceed the government of Afghanistan’s entire budget — went largely unanswered. Proposals to shrink that force by nearly a third after the 2014 transition date have, Allen emphasized, yet to be approved; NATO allies are attempting to hammer out an agreement on funding at a conference in Chicago this May, and Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Ambassador Marc Grossman is currently traveling to Europe to seek support from other donor countries. Plans for how to eventually demobilize that force, or how to integrate the proliferation of U.S.-backed militias and commando groups into the Afghan military system, also currently appear to be nascent at best.
Should efforts at achieving some form of political settlement with Afghan insurgents or cooperation with Pakistan fail, Allen said, continued high levels of Afghan soldiers and police would be needed for the forseeable future to “thicken the defenses” of the Afghan capital against attacks. It is especially unfortunate, then, that the House committee appeared to be almost entirely uninterested in any of the political and diplomatic steps necessary to avoid such a scenario.
As 2014 approaches, U.S. plans for the non-military components of transition remain underdeveloped. An Afghan military force will not substitute for a functioning state, and a U.S. military presence cannot offset the weaknesses of the Afghan government indefinitely. Mitigating the disruptions that transition will inevitably bring requires an inclusive political process, and to date, preparations for such a process havn’t come close to matching the intense official focus on the military dimensions of the conflict. If we are to “consolidate our gains,” as Allen expressed a hope for today, and achieve some measure of durable peace in Afghanistan, it must begin now.