| ||Insider attacks on US troops down, says Afghanistan commander nominee|
By Jim Michaels
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WASHINGTON - The number of attacks by Afghan security forces against their coalition partners – so called insider attacks -- have declined in recent months, the general nominated to assume command in Afghanistan testified Thursday.
Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford cautioned, however, that it may be too early to conclude that the decline is the result of new training and other precautions taken to protect troops and reverse the trend.
Insider attacks have killed 53 coalition troops and a sharp spike in the incidents this year raised alarms that the trend would drive a wedge between Afghan and coalition forces as the local forces are assuming a greater security role.
The insider attacks have emerged as one of the most dangerous threats to the coalition mission in Afghanistan. The attacks come as the Taliban has been weakened on the battlefield – militants have been pushed out of towns and villages and into remote areas.
"It's hard to overstate the damage these kinds of attacks do to the morale of our troops and to our broader mission of supporting the growth and professionalization of Afghan forces," said Sen. John McCain, a ranking member of the Armed Services Committee.
Dunford appeared before the committee at a hearing on his nomination to assume command of coalition forces in Afghanistan.
The current commander in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. John Allen, was originally scheduled to be at the hearing as well so the committee could consider his nomination to become supreme allied commander Europe.
His nomination has been put no hold while the Pentagon's Inspector General reviews emails he sent to a woman in Tampa.
Dunford said the command in Afghanistan has strengthened vetting of new recruits, boosted the number of counterintelligence agents and enhanced security for coalition forces operating in remote locations.
The Pentagon has said some of the insider attacks are the result of Taliban infiltration, but others are isolated disputes.
"Insider attacks have declined substantially providing an early indication that countermeasures are working, but it will take time to see the full effect of these countermeasures," Dunford said in a written response to questions from the committee.
The hearing also provided senators with an opportunity to present divergent views on the pace of the drawdown in Afghanistan. The White House has said it will withdraw most conventional combat forces by the end of 2014.
U.S. and Afghan officials are working on an agreement to leave a residual force behind after 2014. The residual force would likely be capable of continuing to train and support Afghan forces and conduct counter-terrorism missions.
The pace of reductions between now and 2015, however, has not yet been determined. McCain and other critics said they worry aggressive cuts in U.S. forces will jeopardize security gains and embolden the Taliban.
"This path would constitute a rush to failure, place unnecessary risks on our forces, and I could not support it in any respect," McCain said.
McCain recommended delaying "the further withdrawal of U.S. forces until 2014, so as to give our commanders maximum flexibility and combat power to achieve our goals."
Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the committee, pointed out that President Obama referred to the drawdown occurring at a "steady pace."
The United States has about 68,000 troops in Afghanistan now.
Dunford, currently serving as the assistant Marine Corps commandant, said he has not been included in the discussions about the drawdown of forces.
But Dunford said the United States and international allies need to express a strong commitment to Afghanistan beyond 2015. Worries that the United States and the international community may not stick around encourages factions to protect their own interests at the expense of a unified government.
Levin said a former warlord recently called for militias to rearm, indicating a lack of confidence in Afghan security forces.
Dunford said the conclusion of a long-term security agreement between Afghanistan and the United States would help allay fears and restore confidence.
"I think what's necessary right now is that we have a clear and compelling narrative of commitment from our country," Dunford said.