WASHINGTON - This summer's fighting in Afghanistan will be the toughest test for the country's evolving security forces as they try to root out insurgents in the more heavily populated regions, senior defense officials told skeptical lawmakers on Wednesday.
The officials said that while the next few months will be a significant challenge, it also comes before the United States withdraws its surge force of 23,000 American troops in a war that has lasted more than a decade and left the public war-weary.
"The time to test them is now, when we have the forces in theater to ensure their success," David Sedney, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia, told a House Armed Services subcommittee.
Members of the panel voiced concerns about the capabilities of the Afghan National Security Forces, questioning the attrition rate and the operations in which Afghans are assuming the lead. The hearing came against the backdrop of fresh violence in the country. A suicide bomber killed 21 people including three U.S. soldiers at a checkpoint in a crowded market in eastern Afghanistan. It was the third assault targeting Americans in as many days and raised questions about the U.S.-led coalition's plan to handover security to Afghan forces at the end of 2014.
There was no question about the latest violence at the hearing. But lawmakers sought an assessment of the Afghan force, whether goals on the number in the force can be met and the size of the enemy. Pressed on the number of Taliban, Sedney said they number 15,000 to 20,000, based on the latest intelligence estimate, though some only fight for a day while others battle every day.
Army Maj. Gen. Stephen Townsend, director of the Pakistan-Afghanistan coordination cell, told the panel that the percentage of attrition has dropped though it still remains a problem. He said the Afghan National Army is still on track to meet its goal of 195,000 by the end of the summer, the national police 157,000 before October and the security forces 352,000.
Townsend said the forces are taking on greater responsibilities.
"The percentage of Afghan-led partnered operations increase from 33 percent in January 2012 to 59 percent in April. In some regions of the country Afghan forces conduct independent operations at a higher rate than their partnered operations," he said.
This summer, operations will focus on more heavily populated regions. Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., chairman of the subcommittee and a recent visitor to Afghanistan, asked what would happen if the security forces were less than successful this summer.
Sedney said the next few months will give Marine Gen. John Allen, the top commander in Afghanistan, a chance to evaluate the Afghan forces and determine future requirements, which inevitably would involve how many U.S. troops to keep in the country.
The United States currently has 88,000 American troops there. President Barack Obama envisions a final withdrawal of U.S. combat troops in 2014 though no timetable has been set.
Members of the committee have challenged Obama's planned withdrawal. The defense bill that the House approved earlier this year calls for keeping a sizable number of U.S. combat troops in the country. The bill cites significant uncertainty in Afghanistan about U.S. military support and says that to reduce the uncertainty and promote stability the president should "maintain a force of at least 68,000 troops through Dec. 31, 2014, unless fewer forces can achieve United States objectives."
The hearing was part of the Republican-led committee's work on a report on Afghanistan that likely will be released in the weeks before the November elections, according to lawmakers and staff.