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Testimony


Statement on Afghanistan to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, 216 Hart Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C., Thursday, December 03, 2009
Mr. Chairman, Senator Lugar, members of the committee:
I would like to provide an overview of the strategic thinking and context behind the president’s decisions, in particular:
  • The nexus among Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Pakistan, and Afghanistan; and
  • Our objectives and how the president’s strategy aims to accomplish them.
As the president first stated in March, and re-emphasized on Tuesday night, the goal of the United States in Afghanistan and Pakistan is to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda and its extremist allies and to prevent its return to both countries. The international military effort to stabilize Afghanistan is necessary to achieve this overarching goal. Defeating Al Qaeda and enhancing Afghan security are mutually reinforcing missions. They cannot be un-tethered from one another, as much as we might wish that to be the case. 
While Al Qaeda is under great pressure now and dependent on the Taliban and other extremist groups for sustainment, the success of the Taliban would vastly strengthen Al Qaeda’s message to the Muslim world: that violent extremists are on the winning side of history. Put simply, the Taliban and Al Qaeda have become symbiotic, each benefiting from the success and mythology of the other. Al Qaeda leaders have stated this explicitly and repeatedly.
The lesson of the Afghan Taliban’s revival for Al Qaeda is that time and will are on their side. That, with a Western defeat, they could regain their strength and achieve a major strategic victory – as long as their senior leadership lives and can continue to inspire and attract followers and funding. Rolling back the Taliban is now necessary, even if not sufficient, to the ultimate defeat of Al Qaeda.
At the same time, one cannot separate the security situation in Afghanistan from the stability of Pakistan – a nuclear-armed nation of 175 million people now also explicitly targeted by Islamic extremists.   Giving extremists breathing room in Pakistan led to the resurgence of the Taliban and more coordinated, sophisticated attacks in Afghanistan. By the same token, providing a sanctuary for extremists in southern and eastern Afghanistan would put yet more pressure on a Pakistani government already under attack from groups operating in the border region. Indeed, the Pakistan Taliban, in just the last year or so, has become a real threat to Pakistan’s domestic peace and stability, carrying out – with Al Qaeda’s help – escalating bombing attacks throughout the country.
Failure in Afghanistan would mean a Taliban takeover of much, if not most, of Afghanistan and likely a renewed civil war. Taliban-ruled areas could in short order become, once again, a sanctuary for Al Qaeda as well as a staging area for resurgent militant groups on the offensive in Pakistan. Success in South and Central Asia by Islamic extremists – as was the case twenty years ago – would beget success on other fronts. It would strengthen the Al Qaeda narrative, providing renewed opportunities for recruitment, fund-raising, and more sophisticated operations. 
It is true that Al Qaeda and its followers can plot and execute attacks from a variety of locations – from Munich to London to Denver. What makes the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan uniquely different from any other location – including Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere – is that this part of the world represents the epicenter of extremist jihadism: the historic place where native and foreign Muslims defeated one superpower and, in their view, caused its collapse at home. For them to be seen to defeat the sole remaining superpower in the same place would have severe consequences for this country and the world.
Some say this is similar to the “domino theory” that underpinned and ultimately muddied the thinking behind the U.S. military escalation in Vietnam. The difference, however, is that we have very real – and very recent – history that shows just what can happen in this part of the world when extremists have breathing space, safe havens, and governments complicit with and supportive of their mission. Less than five years after the last Soviet tank crossed the Termez Bridge out of Afghanistan, in 1993 Islamic militants launched their first attack on the World Trade Center in New York. We cannot afford to make a similar mistake again.
The president’s new strategic concept aims to reverse the Taliban’s momentum and reduce its strength while providing the time and space necessary for the Afghans to develop enough security and governance capacity to stabilize their own country. 
The essence of our civil-military plan is to clear, hold, build, and transfer. Beginning to transfer security responsibility to the Afghans in summer of 2011 is critical – and, in my, view achievable. 
July 2011, the time at which the president said the United States will begin to draw down our forces, will be the beginning of a process – an inflection point, if you will – of transition for Afghan forces as they begin to assume greater responsibility for security. The pace and character of that drawdown – which districts and provinces are turned over and when – will be determined by conditions on the ground. It will be a gradual – but inexorable – process. It will be similar to the gradual but steady, conditions-based drawdown that began to take place in Iraq about 14 months after the surge began there.
As with so many issues in the national security and defense arena – the real challenge in Afghanistan is finding the right balance. The prompt dispatch of some 30,000 U.S. combat troops – on top of the 21,000 already ordered by the president earlier this year – sends a sure message of the president’s resolve to both our partners and our adversaries in Afghanistan and Pakistan. When this buildup is complete, total U.S. force levels in Afghanistan will have more than doubled under President Obama’s orders, to about 100,000 troops. Whether you agree with what we are doing are not, there should be no doubting – at home or abroad – this president’s commitment to the success of this mission.
On the other hand, we have to send an equally strong message to the Afghan government that, when all is said and done, the United States military is not going to be there to protect them forever.    That the Afghans must step up to the plate and do the things necessary that will allow them to take primary responsibility for defending their own country – and do so with a sense of purpose and urgency. This is the balance we are trying to achieve – and I believe the president’s plan provides both the resources and flexibility to do so.  
Making this transition possible requires accelerating the development of a significantly larger and more capable Afghan army and police through intensive partnering with ISAF forces, especially in combat. Even after we transfer security responsibility to the Afghans and draw down our combat forces, the United States will continue to support their development as an important partner for the long haul. We must not repeat the mistakes of 1989, when we abandoned the country only to see it descend into chaos, and then into Taliban hands. 
Let me offer a couple of closing thoughts.
The president believes, as I do, that, in the end, we cannot defeat Al Qaeda and its toxic ideology without improving and stabilizing the security situation in Afghanistan. The president’s decision offers the best possibility to decisively change the momentum in Afghanistan, and fundamentally alter the strategic equation in Pakistan and Central Asia – all necessary to protect the United States, our allies, and our vital interests. 
As always, the heaviest burden will fall on the men and women who have volunteered – and re-volunteered – to serve their country in uniform.  I know they will be uppermost in our minds and in our prayers as we take on this arduous but vitally important mission.
Thank you.

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