INTRODUCTION

In the wake of the tragic 9/11 terrorist attacks, U.S. military forces promptly responded to eliminate the international terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan. We were soon joined by our NATO allies and other international partners in this essential endeavor. Nearly fourteen years later, we have not forgotten the motivations for our combined mission in Afghanistan and why we remain--to protect our homelands.

Our primary focus continues to be on preventing Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven again for al Qaeda and other international extremist groups. Since 2001, the extraordinary efforts, courage, & sacrifices of both our conventional and special operations forces have ensured that another terrorist attack originating from Afghanistan and directed against our allies, partners, or our own citizens at home has not occurred.

Today, U.S. special operations forces, alongside their Afghan counterparts, continue to impose considerable pressure on the remaining fragments of the terrorist networks that attacked us. Simultaneously, the Afghan National Defense & Security Forces (ANDSF) have proven themselves to be increasingly capable as they tenaciously combat a resilient insurgency. Under the tutelage of Coalition advisors & trainers, and resourced & funded by the international community, the ANDSF have grown and matured in less than a decade into a modern, professional force of all volunteers. They recently assumed full responsibility for securing the Afghan people. Our Afghan partners have proven that they can and will take the tactical fight from here.

On 1 January 2015, U.S. Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A) formally ended its combat mission, Operation ENDURING FREEDOM (OEF), and commenced its new mission, Operation FREEDOM'S SENTINEL (OFS). Simultaneously, approximately 13,000 troops (of which nearly 10,000 are from the U.S.) from 41 nations commenced the new NATO mission, Resolute Support (RS), which focuses on Training, Advising, & Assisting (TAA) the Afghan Security Institutions (ASI) and ANDSF in order to build their capabilities and long-term sustainability. U.S. forces are now carrying out two well-defined missions: a Counter-Terrorism (CT) mission against the remnants of al Qaeda and the Resolute Support TAA mission in support of Afghan security forces. Our CT and TAA efforts are concurrent and complementary. While we continue to attack the remnants of al-Qaeda, we are also building the ANDSF so that they can secure the Afghan people, win the peace, and contribute to stability throughout the region.

2014: A CRITICAL YEAR OF TRANSITIONS

2014 proved to a year of monumental political, security, and societal changes in Afghanistan. After a protracted political impasse, Afghanistan successfully completed its first peaceful, democratic transition in its history. Upon the formation of the new National Unity Government, President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive (CE) Abdullah Abdullah promptly signed a Bilateral Security Agreement with the U.S. and a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with NATO. These critical security pacts confirmed Afghan sovereignty while reaffirming the Afghans' desired, long-term commitment to working with the U.S. and NATO until the Afghan security forces can stand entirely on their own.
President Ghani and CE Abdullah have proven to be exceptionally amenable to working with the international community. President Ghani, in particular, has embraced his role as a war time president and commander in chief. Both leaders are also committed to addressing the challenges of systemic corruption and nepotism. Together, they are committed to achieving an enduring peace in Afghanistan and the region.

The security transition that occurred within the ASI and ANDSF in 2014 was no less profound. In their second fighting season in the lead, the ANDSF proved proficient at securing the Afghan people, fighting their own battles, and holding the gains achieved by International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) over the last 14 years. On the battlefield, the ANDSF fought tenaciously and demonstrated their increasing capabilities.

Additionally, the ANDSF stayed above the fray throughout the election dispute last summer. They provided effective security for two national elections and a lengthy Independent Election Commission audit process. Significantly, they maintained their political neutrality and exhibited no evidence of fracturing along ethnic or tribal lines. ANDSF professionalism and non-partisanship stand in stark contrast to their Iraqi counterparts. Regular polling reveals the vast majority of Afghans hold a favorable view of their soldiers and police. The Afghan National Army (ANA) remains the most trusted institution in the country with an approval rating that regularly exceeds 85%.

Of note, ANDSF operational tempo (OPTEMPO) was four times higher in 2014 than in 2013. Not surprisingly, and regrettably, ANDSF casualty rates also increased last year and continue to rise in 2015. The combination of an increased OPTEMPO, assumption of greater security responsibilities, drawdown of Coalition forces, and the ANDSF's aggressive pursuit of the enemy have all contributed to increased casualty rates.

Thus far, ANDSF have proven capable of meeting their recruitment goals to make up for their losses. It is important to underscore that over 70% percent of ANDSF attrition can be attributed to absenteeism--not battlefield casualties. Absenteeism remains a leadership challenge that the Coalition continues to assist the ANDSF to mitigate.

Our Coalition underwent transitions no less dramatic in 2014 as we significantly reduced our troop numbers and infrastructure and formally ended our combat mission. Our transition from OEF and ISAF to OFS and RS reflected the natural evolution of our maturing partnership with the increasingly capable ANDSF. Back in 2011, more than 140,000 Coalition troops were distributed over 800 sites throughout the country. Our forces were then heavily engaged in combat and tactical-level advising. We have now reduced our forces and footprint to fewer than 13,000 Coalition troops at 21 bases throughout Afghanistan. With the exception of our continued tactical advising of the Afghan Special Security Forces (ASSF), we are no longer engaged in brigade-level and below advising. Instead, we are now mentoring our Afghan counterparts at the corps headquarters and security ministries. This significant shift in our mission focus has been complemented and driven by the rapid expansion and development of the ANDSF into a skilled and courageous force of approximately 350,000.

2015 AND BEYOND

The next two years of our campaign will play a crucial role in cementing our gains. While we strive to improve ANDSF capabilities and sustainability, we will continue to re-posture our forces and adjust our footprint. As in the past, our drawdown will occur under enemy pressure. We will need to maximize the effects of our Train, Advise, & Assist Commands (TAACs) located at our four regional spokes in the north, south, east, & west of the country as we prepare for our eventual consolidation in Kabul sometime in 2016. We will do all of this as we manage considerable risks to our mission and force and contend with myriad lethal threats.

ANDSF performance in 2014 and the first half of 2015 highlighted capability gaps and shortfalls that will most likely persist for years. Their most critical gaps are found in aviation, intelligence, special operations, logistics, & sustainment and the ASI's ability to conduct tasks such as planning, programming, budgeting, and human resource management. At the security ministries, our advisors are focusing on building ASI systems and processes. They are also working to improve integration between the different security pillars--army, police, and intelligence services. At the corps-level, our advisors are concentrating on developing ANDSF planning capacity, command and control, and operational capabilities. Additionally, they are addressing developmental shortfalls in the areas of medical and counter-IED measures. With limited exceptions, we have completed fielding of new equipment for the ANDSF and are now focused on sustaining that equipment and replenishing battle losses. At all levels, our advisors also continue to emphasize and enforce Afghan financial transparency and accountability of donor resources.

Although considerable challenges remain, I believe the ANDSF's capabilities, capacities, and morale will be sufficient--backstopped by our continued advisory efforts and limited enabler support--to provide for Afghanistan's long-term security. Our collective efforts are hardening the Afghan state and giving it needed time to develop and mature. By improving security conditions, we are also reducing the operating space for insurgents and incentivizing their participation in the reconciliation process.
Conclusion
Ours is now a supporting role, but our commitment to the Afghans remains steadfast. The hard work and significant sacrifices of countless U.S. and Coalition military personnel and civilians over the last 14 years have created the conditions in which Afghans can now take responsibility for their security and governance. The Afghans welcome the opportunity to shape their destiny, but they still desire, need, and deserve our assistance.
The Ghani & Abdullah administration offers us the best opportunity in the last decade to develop a meaningful strategic partnership that will stabilize Afghanistan, and in turn, offer greater security for the U.S. homeland. Political progress in Kabul demonstrates the return on U.S. and international investments in the future of Afghanistan and the Afghan people. Furthermore, our continued security presence in Afghanistan represents a comparatively moderate investment, which still offers us the promise of significant return in regional and global security. The cost of our continued investment, moreover, is most likely to be far less than the cost and risk of a swift & convenient, but potentially imprudent, divestment.
President Ghani remarked last year at the NATO Foreign Ministerial, "Compelled by tragedy and cemented by mutual sacrifice, the partnership between Afghanistan, NATO, and the U.S. has entered a new phase." In this new phase, I firmly believe that our combined CT and TAA efforts in support of the ANDSF and ASI will reinforce and deepen our strategic partnership with the Afghan government and its security institutions. We could offer no greater tribute to the American people, our fallen, and their loved ones than to maintain our commitment to the long-term stability and security of Afghanistan to ensure we accomplish the national security objectives for which our fallen so valiantly fought.