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Flournoy, Petraeus Tell Senate Panel Afghan Training Mission Is Ahead of Schedule

Today’s now-postponed Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Afghanistan was overshadowed by Gen. David Petraeus’s brief but frightening loss of consciousness. But before Petraeus momentarily took ill about 45 minutes into the hearing, he and Michele Flournoy, the undersecretary of defense for policy, made a vigorous case that training Afghan security forces — a key priority for Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the panel’s chairman — is going better than they anticipated.

Both Petraeus and Flournoy acknowledged a host of problems with coalition and Afghan military and governance operations in Marja, which in February became the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s counterinsurgency strategy. Marja is home to “resumed insurgent activity” just a few months after 15,000 NATO and Afghan forces invaded the city, Flournoy conceded, as has an “expansion of insurgent capacity” in the surrounding Helmand Province. Petraeus put a more optimistic spin on it: “Predictably, the enemy has fought back as we have taken away his sanctuaries in Marjah, Nad-i-Ali, and elsewhere.”

Similarly, Flournoy — if not Petraeus — told the committee that “we share [its] concern” about “local powerbrokers” have over the emerging and “incremental” NATO-led effort to expand security in Kandahar city. That’s a reference to President Hamid Karzai’s brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, a powerful elected leader of the Kandahar Provincial Council, who maintains a series of contracted security companies — some with NATO money — that many analysts see as little better than militias. Levin, citing a recent report by the Institute for the Study of War, a think tank that advised Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s 2009 strategy review, said that “what used to be called warlord militias are now private security contractors.” Flournoy said that Petraeus, Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Pentagon acquisitions chief Ashton Carter have recently put together a task force headed by a two-star officer to “reduce these unintended consequences.”

But while the hearing was largely billed as an opportunity to brief the committee on McChrystal’s recently-slowed efforts in Kandahar, Flournoy and Petraeus took care to speak to chairman Levin’s key concern: the training and equipping of the Afghan National Army and Police. Last December, Flournoy, Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert Gates declined to give specific estimates for how rapidly an expanded, capable force can be fielded in advance of President Obama’s July 2011 deadline for beginning to transfer security responsibilities to Afghans. But this morning Flournoy credited the new three-star Army general in charge of NATO’s training efforts, William Caldwell, with getting nearly 126,000 Afghan soldiers in uniform, “well above our target of 116,500.” In December, Gates said 130,000 Afghan soldiers was the target end strength for the Afghan National Army by December 2010. Petraeus added that McChrystal had directed NATO troops to expand their partnership operations with Afghan troops “to help achieve greater quality as well as greater quantity.”

Levin was hardly mollified. He found it “disturbing and hard to comprehend” that NATO partner nations had still not contributed all the trainer forces that they pledged earlier this year. He cited military estimates indicating that 67 of Afghanistan’s 113 Army battalions are capable of operating either with or without coalition support. While he said he trusted McChrystal to time the mission in Kandahar — “I’d rather delay a few months and have more Afghan forces in the lead when the security presence is expanded and operations begin more forcefully, than have an ISAF-dominated force attempt to secure Kandahar a few months earlier,” he said — he questioned why McChrystal wasn’t more rapidly fielding more Afghan troops and policemen to secure the city. McChrystal’s plan envisions bringing the total Afghan force in Kandahar up to 8500 by September from its current level of 5300.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the panel’s ranking Republican, reiterated his worries that the July 2011 “arbitrary timeline” for beginning the security transfer would not compel Karzai to improve Afghan governance, rather would cause him to doubt the U.S.’s resolve in the country. Just before losing consciousness, Petraeus told McCain that after a Sunday meeting between McChrystal and Karzai, McChrystal had “no sense” that Karzai had “a lack of confidence in the Unites States’ commitment to Afghanistan.” Flournoy added that “we are committed to supporting the people of Afghanistan over the long-term,” even though “we cannot and should not remain in a combat role indefinitely.”

Both Flournoy and Petraeus anticipated that McChrystal would be able to show what Flournoy called “demonstrable progress” by the end of the year. Expect to hear much more on that — and criticism of it — tomorrow when the hearing reconvenes.

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