WASHINGTON - Recently, the Senate Armed Services Committee heard a status report on Afghanistan from Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. and NATO commander there. As chairman of the committee and as someone who has visited Afghanistan several times, most recently in January, I was pleased to hear the general's assessment that we are making progress in Afghanistan and his confirmation that we will begin reducing our troop levels in July.
General Petraeus testified before us a little over a year after President Obama laid out his strategy for Afghanistan. That December 2009 strategy included two key elements: a surge of 30,000 U.S. troops to help reverse the Taliban's momentum and seize the initiative; and the setting of a date 18 months from then, or July 2011, for when U.S. troops would begin to come home.
I have consistently supported the president's decision to set that July date for the start of troop reductions because success requires Afghan buy-in, Afghans taking the lead, and Afghan ownership of the mission. Setting a date to begin accelerating the transition of responsibility to the Afghans gives them a sense of urgency to take the steps they need to take.
Sen. Carl Levin
That's why it was important to hear Gen. Petraeus tell the committee his view of the July 2011 date to begin reductions: "It undercuts the narrative of the Taliban that we will be there forever, that we're determined to maintain a presence forever. And it does, indeed, as I have told this committee before, send that message of urgency that President Obama sought to transmit."
The growth in the size and capability of Afghan security forces, and control of the territory by those forces, is robbing the Taliban of their propaganda target and bringing us closer to the success of our mission. And so it was good to hear Gen. Petraeus and Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy, who testified with him, speak in support of a proposal for up to 70,000 additional Afghan soldiers and police. President Obama is now considering that request, and I have urged him, in person, to approve it, because a strong, large Afghan army is the Taliban's worst nightmare.
During my visit to Afghanistan in January, I saw how the Afghan people have growing confidence in the ability of Afghan and coalition forces to provide security. In former Taliban strongholds in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, the Afghan people are returning to villages and communities and starting to rebuild their lives. Joint operations are increasingly Afghan-led in their planning and execution.
As the Afghan people see their own forces providing ongoing protection after the Taliban are cleared out, Afghan confidence in the army and police grows. The growing support of the Afghan people for their security forces will make the transition to an Afghan security lead more achievable in the short-term and sustainable over time.
Certainly challenges lie ahead. General Petraeus told us he expects a Taliban spring offensive, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates has warned that this spring's fighting season will be "the acid test," as the Taliban tries to take back the terrain it has lost and engages in a campaign of assassination and intimidation.
Afghan leaders also need to bring a sense of urgency to improving governance, delivering services and fighting corruption and practices that prey upon the Afghan people, if they are to earn the support of the people for the Afghan government. Also, there must be far more progress in ending the safe havens that insurgents use in Pakistan that impact on Afghanistan's security.
Our committee conveyed to Gen. Petraeus our thanks not only for his service, but our gratitude and admiration for the men and women in uniform deployed in Afghanistan and around the world. Their awe-inspiring service has brought us to the point where we can see clear success in Afghanistan and a clear path toward reducing our troop commitment there.
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Carl Levin is the senior U.S. senator from Michigan and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.