Washington: The United States expects more high profile attacks in Afghanistan from the Taliban, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said, noting that this challenge in this war-torn country can`t be ignored.
"Even as we recognize these many positive trends, that we cannot and will not ignore the significant challenges that remain. The enemy we are dealing with, as we have said before, is adaptive and resilient. Their focus has shifted to carrying out high-profile attacks in order to undermine the new sense of security that has been felt by ordinary Afghans," Panetta told reporters.
"I expect that there will be more of these high-profile attacks and that the enemy will do whatever they can to try and break our will using this kind of tactic. That will not happen," he asserted.
In response to these attacks, throughout this past year, Commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan General John Allen has taken steps, along with Afghan leaders, the Afghan army, ISAF, to protect US forces, Afghan people and to ensure that their strategy remains on track, he said.
"Most recently, during the heightened tension over the inflammatory video on the Internet, this included making temporary adjustments on partnered operations between ISAF and Afghan forces taking place below the battalion level," he said adding that most ISAF units have returned to their normal partnered operations at all levels.
"We must and we will take whatever steps are necessary to protect our forces, but I also want to underscore that we remain fully committed to our strategy of transition to Afghan security control," he said.
In his first address to the press, after the US completed the drawdown of 33,000 surge forces, which was ordered by the US President in December of 2009, Panetta said it is clear that the surge allowed them to turn a very important corner in 2011.
"It accomplished the primary objectives of reversing the Taliban`s momentum on the battlefield and dramatically increased the size and capability of the Afghan national security forces," Panetta said.
"To fully understand the impact of the surge, I think it`s a good thing to remind ourselves where things stood in mid-2009. At that time the momentum was clearly on the side of the Taliban. The insurgency was steadily retaking key parts of Afghanistan. Any time that our forces would clear an area and then leave, it was immediately taken back by the Taliban," he said.
"There were no areas that were transitioned, mainly because the Afghan national security forces were not capable to provide security on their own or counter the Taliban. The result was that Afghanistan faced the real prospect that the Taliban would take over large parts of the country, which ultimately would have strengthened al-Qaeda`s hand and provided it again with a safe haven from which to plan attacks on our homeland," Panetta said.
"In short, in mid-2009, I think there was a real risk that the mission in Afghanistan might very well fail. Thanks to the efforts of US and Afghan forces and our ISAF partners, I think the situation today is considerably different and improved. The Taliban`s gains on the battlefield have been reversed," the defense Secretary said.
"They`ve been unable to regain any of the territory that they`ve lost. Violence levels in populated areas have decreased significantly. Al-Qaeda has been denied safe haven, and obviously, its leadership has been decimated. The Afghan national security forces have become more capable and expanded dramatically, growing from roughly 150,000 in November 2008 to more than 330,000 today, with the goal of going to 352,000 very soon," Panetta said.
General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the US Joint Chief of Staff, who just returned from Afghanistan, said that the Afghan forces are not only gaining capability, but they`re also, importantly, gaining confidence.
"They are fighters. With our continued assistance, I see them getting stronger while the Taliban gets weaker. I`ll also tell you that our Afghan partners are working with us to shut down the threat of insider attacks," he said.
"As one Afghan army commander told me, insider attacks are an affront to their honor, at odds with their culture and their faith. As for us, we are adapting to changes in that threat as well. That`s what professional militaries do. And we are doing it in a way that ensures we continue to be able to partner," Dempsey said.