“This problem will not be over in 18 months. This problem will not be over in two years. This is a long-term commitment that we are involved in in Afghanistan, if we are to ultimately be successful,” he said. “I think what we are saying, simply, is that we think that the strategy needs to show some signs that it’s working, not that it has been totally successful a year or 18 months from now.”
Broadening the operation to include Pakistan, reversing Taliban gains and securing the population, helping to build a self-reliant Afghan security force, and providing a secure environment for governance are the top priorities of the so-called “Af-Pak” strategy President Barack Obama’s administration laid out in March.
Obama also approved deploying 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan and nominated Army Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal as the new commander of NATO and U.S. forces there. Some 54,000 U.S. troops and 32,000 NATO forces are currently in Afghanistan.
Gates said it’s important to develop criteria to demonstrate success in Afghanistan to the American public, adding that the “interagency” — the combination of military efforts with civilian agencies such as the State Department providing nonmilitary expertise and initiatives — is developing a series of benchmarks.
“My own view is, it’s very important for us to be able to show the American people that we are moving forward by the end of the year, or a year from now, to show some shift in momentum,” Gates said. “This is a long-term commitment, but I think the American people will be willing to sustain this endeavor if they believe it’s not just a stalemate and that we’re sacrificing lives and not making any headway.”
Gates added that he pressed hard for articulating progress measures. “I said, ‘You know, the last administration had benchmarks forced upon it. Let’s volunteer them. Let’s say, “Here’s what we think we need to achieve, and here’s how we can measure ourselves against this,”’” the secretary told the panel.
Mullen underscored the urgency of shifting the momentum in Afghanistan.
“I, too, am concerned about time, and think that with these forces we’re putting in there now, we’ve got to reverse the trend of violence over the next 12 to 18 months,” he said. “And I think it’s possible.” But the chairman cautioned Afghan civilians are the “center of gravity” in the counterinsurgency mission there, adding that each civilian casualty presents a setback.
“We’ve been through some difficult times with civilian casualties,” he acknowledged. “We can’t keep doing that. The more we do that, the more we back up, and it hurts our strategy.”
Speaking about the quality of Afghanistan’s national security forces, Gates called the Afghan army “perhaps the strongest national institution” that exists there. The Afghan army is slated to go from its current ranks of 82,000 members to 134,000.
“There’s no question but that our ticket out of Afghanistan is the ability of the Afghans to maintain their own security,” Gates said. “And I think our commanders feel that we’re on the right track.”
The Afghan national police force, which has not enjoyed the same success as the army, has been hampered by corruption and other problems. But Gates expressed hope that the influx of U.S. forces – 4,000 of whom are trainers – would help the police forces thrive.
“Part of the added forces that we’re sending in will, in fact, be for training the police, and we have a program where we’re going back into districts, pulling the police force out, retraining them, giving them new equipment and then putting them back in with police mentors,” he said. “And the experience with that program so far has been encouraging.”