A senior Pentagon official told Congress Wednesday that the Obama administration's new approach in Afghanistan is beginning to work, and that it is being extended from the area where it first was implemented in Helmand Province to the key population center of Kandahar.
Amid reports of continuing problems at the site of the first of the new offensives - the town of Marjah in Helmand Province - and months of preparations for the next phase in and around the southern city of Kandahar, the Pentagon says its new approach is working.
The Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Michele Flournoy, testified before the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee.
"The evidence suggests that our shift in approach is beginning to produce results," said Michele Flournoy. "The insurgency is losing momentum. And though real challenges and risks remain, we see a number of positive trends."
Flournoy said there is better coordination between the U.S. military and its international and Afghan allies, and between the troops and their civilian counterparts. She said new tactics have sharply reduced Afghan civilian casualties, and that efforts have been intensified to build the Afghan Army and police forces, and a justice system to back them up.
But Flournoy acknowledged that many challenges lie ahead.
"I don't want to suggest that achieving success in Afghanistan will be simple or easy," she said. "Far from it. Kandahar, for example, will present challenges that are fundamentally different from those that we have recently encountered in Helmand. Inevitably, we will face challenges, possibly setbacks, even as we achieve successes. We need to recognize that things may get harder before they get better."
All of the 30,000 additional U.S. troops President Barack Obama authorized for Afghanistan have not yet arrived, and allied nations have not yet identified all of the troops they have promised to deploy. U.S. officials say there is a critical shortage of trainers for the Afghan Army and police, and that without enough trainers, any international withdrawal could be delayed.
U.S. officials have called the initial part of the new Afghanistan effort a 12 to 18 month process, culminating in July of next year with the beginning of what is expected to be a very gradual U.S. troop withdrawal.
At the same congressional hearing, the chief of operations for the senior U.S. military command, Lieutenant General John Paxton, described Kandahar as "the real prize" of southern Afghanistan. He said U.S., international and Afghan forces are working together to expand secure zones in the area and to improve freedom of movement for local people.
The Kandahar effort has been code-named "Operation Hamkari," which means "cooperation" in Dari. But General Paxton said the effort to take control of Kandahar for the Afghan government will not be like the earlier operation in Marjah, which had a well-defined starting date and involved a major military operation.
"Hamkari is not about highly kinetic military operations," said General Paxton. "It is about applying the combined resources of the Afghan National Army, the Afghan National Police and ISAF, in support of the governor, to improve security - both in the city and in the populated environs."
Some members of the congressional committee expressed skepticism about the Obama administration's approach to fighting the Afghan insurgency, saying that it is taking too long and costing too many American lives.
But the Pentagon officials defended the plan, saying that it is the only way to defeat an insurgency that has a measure of popular support. The Under Secretary of Defense, Michele Flournoy, said she believes the allied effort in Afghanistan is "on the right road for the first time in a long time."