Too Early for Post-2014 NATO Troop Numbers, Dunford Says
By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
BRUSSELS, June 4, 2013 Afghan forces are acquitting themselves well despite heavy losses in their first fighting season leading security efforts in Afghanistan, but it’s too early to predict what troop support they’ll need after 2014, NATO’s top Afghanistan commander said here today.
Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. spoke to reporters at NATO headquarters about the alliance’s International Security Assistance Force mission, which he commands. Afghan forces have lost more than 100 lives to enemy attacks in each of the last two weeks, he said, though in previous weeks the number has been less than half that.
“In terms of how they’re doing, the Taliban came out and are doing exactly what they said they’d do: high-profile attacks, insider attacks against the Afghans, and then fear or intimidation. … The encouraging thing has been the integration of the Afghan forces,” the general said.
Afghan army, police, local police and special operations forces are cooperating well at the tactical level, he said.
Dunford added that while a formal ceremony later this month will mark the transition to Afghan lead in all Afghanistan operations, the shift already has happened. Afghan army and police forces have “absolutely confronted” the Taliban’s challenges, he said.
NATO forces no longer operate unilaterally, except to conduct local security patrols, route clearance or their own retrograde operations, Dunford said. As NATO defense ministers prepare to discuss tomorrow what the post-2014 follow-on mission will require from the alliance in people, equipment and capabilities, the general said the biggest unknown is what the security situation will look like in a year and a half.
He noted some of the variables that will shape that picture: Afghan forces’ performance this summer, the Afghan elections set for 2014, and any progress made toward a political process that brings the Afghan government and the Taliban to the negotiations table together peacefully.
“I think it’s impossible today, except with linear progression, to project out to 2015 what the security environment is going to be,” he said.
Dunford said he’s confident Afghan forces can lead the fight through the summer, secure elections and manage the transition after the turn of the year.
“Are there capability gaps that need to be addressed? Yes. Leadership issues, command and control issues, logistics issues? Frankly, the systems, the processes, the institutions associated with an army [and] ministerial capacity, those are all areas that we’re working on,” he said. “But in terms of on the ground, I think their performance actually exceeds where we thought they’d be a couple months ago.”
Dunford said he’s been struck most by the pace of change since he took command in February. With Afghan forces in the lead this summer, he added, “we’re going to learn a lot about what 2015 is going to look like.”
Afghan forces’ ability to sustain themselves is his No. 1 issue, the general said. “The thing I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few weeks looking at is the logistics infrastructure,” he noted. “It really gets at everything from programming, planning, budgeting, acquisition, maintenance, distribution – those major issues have to be addressed.”
Dunford continued the list with leadership development and leadership capacity, and noted a fully formed Afghan aviation capability won’t be in place until 2016, 2017 or 2018.
“There’s a pretty good program of record that will bring in some aviation capabilities, [and] we just graduated one of the first classes of Afghan pilots. … So we’re making progress, but we won’t really have the full program of record realized until 2017,” he said.
Dunford said since NATO defense ministers last met in February, ISAF staffs have taken their political guidance and developed a concept of operations, which the ministers will consider tomorrow. That review should result ing further guidance which, he noted, will ISAF will roll into further planning. In the fall, he said, he expects to present the ministers with an operations plan for their consideration.
“The thing that I have argued for consistently, and will continue to argue for, is [to maintain] some degree of flexibility for the commanders that are actually going to be there in 2015, based on all these interdependent variables,” he said. “I think it’s really important that we have plans. Plans have assumptions, by definition, and those assumptions will change over time.”
Dunford said his most important questions to be answered by tomorrow’s ministerial meetings pertain to the elements of the mission NATO intends to have in Afghanistan after 2014.
“Training, advising, assisting – at what level will we train, advise and assist? The institutional level, the corps level and above? Will they be in the four corners of the country? And then, what nations might be willing to assume framework nation responsibility in each of the geographical areas? Those, to me, are probably the most important pieces of that,” he said.
Dunford said from a military perspective, he doesn’t need specificity in numbers at this point.
“We get paid to plan,” he said. “We have plans for any number of ranges of numbers, based on what it is that we want to do.”
As the transition in Afghanistan proceeds, Dunford said, he expects the friction that comes with change.
“Transitions are tough, and what we’re dealing with today is [that] as Afghanistan increasingly asserts its sovereignty, we are in the middle of, still, conducting a military campaign in accordance with a U.N. Security Council. … So as we move through issues, addressing Afghan aspirations of sovereignty and still at the same time moving the campaign forward, we have tension and friction,” he said.
Both NATO forces and the Afghan people share a common objective despite that friction, he noted. But despite tough issues ahead, Dunford concluded, “there is absolutely unanimity in terms of where we want to be in 2015 and beyond.”