I just returned a week ago from another trip to Afghanistan where I saw first-hand our efforts across the country and met with troops and commanders on the ground. I saw personally how international and Afghan forces have halted Taliban momentum throughout the country and are reversing it in their traditional strongholds of Helmand and Kandahar. The sense of progress among those closest to the fight is palpable. In my visit last week with troops at a base near Kandahar, I met with brave young men and women and their Afghan army partners who have taken new territory, cleared it, secured it, and held it – and who are now in the process of linking their newly established zone of security with those in Helmand province.
As we expected and warned, U.S., coalition and Afghan forces are suffering more casualties as we push into these areas long controlled by the Taliban. Fighting in the east, where I saw how our troops are focused on disrupting Taliban insurgents and preventing them from gaining access to population centers, has also picked up. But as a result of the tough fight underway, the Taliban control far less territory today than they did a year ago. The bottom line is that the military progress made in just the past three to four months – since the last of the additional 30,000 U.S. troops arrived – has exceeded my expectations.
Central to these efforts has been the growth of the Afghan security forces – in both size and capability – and they are ahead of schedule. More than 65,000 new recruits have joined the fight this year, and virtually all of them are now rifle-qualified, as opposed to only one-third in November 2009. Afghan troops are already responsible for security in Kabul and are increasingly taking the lead in Kandahar, where they make up more than 60 percent of the fighting forces. They are performing well in partnership with coalition troops and will continue to improve with the right training, equipment, and support. The growth of local security initiatives is helping communities protect themselves against the Taliban while denying insurgents sanctuary and freedom of movement.
At the same time, Pakistan has committed over 140,000 troops to operations in extremist safe-havens along the border in coordination with Afghan and coalition forces on the Afghan side. Though we believe the Pakistanis can, and must, do more to shut down the flow of insurgents across the border, it is important to remember that these kinds of military operations in the tribal areas would have been considered unthinkable just two years ago. And the Pakistani military has simultaneously been contending with the historic flooding that devastated much of the country.
While this progress, as the President and Secretary Clinton said, is fragile and reversible, I believe that we will be able to achieve the key goals laid out by the President last year, and further embraced by other NATO heads of state in Lisbon – that is, for Afghan forces to begin taking the security lead in the coming year and for the Afghan government to assume security responsibility by the end of 2014. This process has already begun in places like Kabul and will accelerate in the spring and summer of 2011. The transition will spread nationwide over time, it will be gradual, and it will be based on conditions on the ground.
I would like to close with a special word of thanks and holiday greetings to our troops and their families and particularly to those serving in Afghanistan. It is their sacrifice that has made this progress possible. I regret that we will ask more of them in the months and years ahead.