The Taliban-led insurgency will direct most of its intense combat this year against Afghan security forces rather than US and NATO troops, the top US military official said.
Given the “steady and gradual decline” in the 66,000-strong US force projected for this year, the Afghan military will bear a greater share of the attacks, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey told reporters at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany on Saturday.
Asked about the upcoming fighting season, Dempsey referred to statements from Taliban leaders vowing that this year would be an “intense year.” He pointed to casualty figures from last month, the first month in 19 that not a single US or coalition member was killed, while 25 Afghan soldiers died.
“Here’s what’s different — this is the first summer in which the Afghan Security Forces are literally in the lead,” Dempsey said.
“That intensity will be directed principally toward them” and potentially “change the internal discourse” as local security casualties increase, he said.
“This will be the first summer we’ll see how it changes,” he said. “We’ll be there with them. What really hangs in the balance now is the confidence level of the Afghan Security Forces and its people, so that’s why we’ve got to sustain our presence for the next two years.”
Dempsey was traveling to Afghanistan for a change-of-command ceremony yesterday that saw US Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford replace Marine General John Allen as the top NATO commander in Afghanistan. Allen is US President Barack Obama’s nominee to serve as Supreme Allied Commander of NATO and US Forces in Europe.
Obama said after meeting with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai this month that “coalition forces will move to a support role this spring” as Afghans take the lead. Obama has pledged to remove most US forces by the end of next year.
As of the end of September last year, only one Afghan brigade out of 23 was considered capable of operating independently, even with the help of advisers, according to a Pentagon report to Congress in December.
Asked about his impression of US-Pakistan military relations and that country’s willingness to attack Taliban havens along its border with Afghanistan, Dempsey said he has seen “encouraging” signs of cooperation.
The Pakistanis “finally believe we are not just going to shut out the lights and leave at the end of 2014,” Dempsey said. “I think they see a viable partnership between them, us and the Afghans. Co-operation at the tactical level has improved, and I think it is migrating to the operational level” between US and Pakistani commanders.