WASHINGTON — NATO's top military commander expects significant progress in Afghanistan before the scheduled departure of U.S. troops begins in July 2011, a timeline that he said lends focus to the mission.
The remarks on Jan. 13 by Navy Adm. James G. Stavridis, NATO's supreme allied commander for Europe, add weight to an American troop withdrawal start date that has been criticized as representing more a symbolic aspiration than a realistic commitment.
"I have great confidence that as we get forward toward 2011, we're going to have significant progress," he said in an interview. "If we do that, we will be able to start transitioning over to an Afghan security force lead, and that's going to be the key."
Characterizing the significance of the July 2011 target built into the new U.S. strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan announced last month, Stavridis backed a statement by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
"I saw President Karzai in an interview last night saying that the 2011 date does not concern him; it helps focus things," Stavridis said. "I think that's a good way to think about it."
The new strategy President Barack Obama unveiled last month will send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops and at least 7,000 more NATO forces to Afghanistan, bringing the total there to around 150,000. The U.S. deployment is expected to include a brigade-sized element to train Afghan forces -- a key component undergirding the transfer of responsibility to Afghanistan to begin in July 2011 that will enable the potential drawdown of American troops.
During a congressional hearing a day after the Dec. 1 strategy rollout, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the 18-month deadline signals the need for the Afghan government in Kabul to claim greater responsibility and shows the American public the war isn't open-ended.
Though any reduction in U.S. forces in July 2011 would be based on conditions on the ground, Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Defense Department expects to be able to transition uncontested areas to Afghan responsibility and gradually draw down at that time.
Echoing these remarks, Stavridis emphasized the importance of handing over authority from U.S. and NATO to Afghan forces.
"I'm very confident, as we get forward to 2011, we're going to have serious momentum in this area, because we're putting very significant resources against it from the whole NATO alliance," he said. "It will be Job Number 1."
The Afghan military is slated to increase from 134,000 troops in December 2010 to 170,000 by July 2011. Some 70,000 U.S. and 43,000 NATO forces are in Afghanistan now as the increase of forces gets under way.
Similarly to the drop-off in violence that came in the wake of a U.S. troop surge in Iraq, Stavridis said, success in Afghanistan also will take shape through better security and improvements in government institutions.
"I think progress and success will look a lot like Iraq does today," he said. "I think what we'll end up with is a nation that will have reasonable control over its borders, it will have a reduced level of corruption and terrorist attacks, it will have a strong and dedicated security force, both in the army and in the police side, and I think we will then be able to transition province by province."