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'Well, good morning and thank you all for being here. Professor Clarke, thank you for that kind introduction. It's a pleasure to be with the Royal United Services Institute once again - and I want to thank Team RUSI for pulling together this morning's event.
I should note that it's particularly good to be back in London and to have a chance to meet with the UK leadership on the campaign in Afghanistan. For almost a decade - first in the Balkans, then in Iraq, then at US Central Command, and now in Afghanistan - I've had the privilege of soldiering alongside some of the United Kingdom's most accomplished military and civilian leaders and troopers. They have consistently been most impressive, and it has been a great honor to serve with them. And Ambassador Mark Sedwill, my NATO diplomatic wingman in Kabul, is certainly one of those very accomplished and talented individuals - and it's great to be here with him as it was an honor to be here some three years ago at RUSI with Ambassador Ryan Crocker, my diplomatic partner in Baghdad.
In the years since 9/11, I have also been privileged not just to serve with British forces but to have British forces under my command in multiple combat tours, and they have repeatedly performed magnificently. Last month, I visited the UK Fourth Brigade in Helmand Province to get an update from them and to thank them as they finished up a tour marked by considerable valor and enormous sacrifice. Those same qualities were reflected by the impressive contributions of the Third Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment, which finished a tour in Helmand earlier this year - and which traces its lineage all the way back to the Duke of Wellington, founder of this institution and namesake of this auditorium. Indeed, just as in the Duke's day, no matter the difficulty of the area or the complexity of the mission, the British troopers with whom I've been privileged to serve in nearly six years of deployments have repeatedly demonstrated the extraordinary initiative, creativity, determination, and courage for which your troopers have always been renowned.
The performance of British troopers in southern Afghanistan has been particularly important to our campaign since, of course, a large portion of the ongoing fight is centered there. And before we take questions, I would like briefly to describe what we've been seeking to achieve overall and to explain our operations in Helmand Province and in Kandahar Province as well as in the wider campaign with our Afghan partners to bring greater security to their country.
Over the last eighteen months, we've worked hard to get the inputs right in Afghanistan: to build the organizations that are, as we learned in Iraq, necessary for a comprehensive civil-military counterinsurgency campaign; to get the right leaders in charge of those organizations; to develop the necessary civil-military concepts and plans; and to deploy the additional forces, civilians, and funding needed to enable the execution of those plans. Broadly speaking, we now have the inputs right, and we've been striving to turn the inputs into outputs by, among other initiatives: developing Afghan security forces; conducting intelligence-driven targeted raids to capture or kill Taliban leaders and fighters; launching clearance operations to take away safe havens the Taliban has maintained for some years; helping to establish the new Afghan Local Police elements; facilitating the Afghan conduct of reintegration; building infrastructure; supporting the development of local governance; and so on.
We are now seeing the early results of our efforts though we've clearly had tough fighting. In recent months, for example, there has been progress in a number of areas in Central Helmand Province, where, over the past year, we have steadily and methodically established security zones around the most populated areas. Marjah is one prominent example. Earlier this year, the city was an insurgent command and control center, an improvised explosive device hub, and a nexus for illegal narcotics industry activities. Since the initial clearing operation, we have seen a slow but steady accumulation of security gains, which have allowed education ministry officials to reopen a schools for the first time in years, local citizens to vote in parliamentary elections, shopkeepers to reopen markets, and Afghan forces and civilians to begin gradually assuming greater responsibility for various tasks.
We have also embarked on a deliberate campaign to improve security in Kandahar Province, just to the east of Helmand. With our Afghan partners - who outnumber ISAF forces in this operation - we have taken away key safe havens in parts of Kandahar City, the Arghandab District northwest of the city, and the bulk of the two districts to the west of Kandahar City - although more work remains to be done in those districts. And we will continue these operations and over time link the growing Kandahar security bubble with the one in central Helmand. When that connection is made, we will have secured the major population centers in the south - the Taliban's primary area of operations.
Beyond those efforts, we are, as I mentioned, also focused on increasing the size and capability of the Afghan National Security Forces, targeting insurgent leaders, supporting Afghan initiatives to convince local fighters to lay down their arms, helping to establish local governance, and supporting local development - all topics the Ambassador and I can discuss this morning.
Now, to be sure, all of this has required time. But that should not surprise anyone. As I noted earlier, it has taken us some 18 months to broadly get the inputs right. Beyond that, of course, Afghanistan has always posed a unique set of challenges due to the damage to the damage done to its infrastructure and human capital during three decades of war. In fact, in September 2005, I visited Afghanistan on my way home from a second tour in Iraq to conduct an assessment for the US Secretary of Defense. Upon return to the United States, I not only provided that assessment, but I also offered the conclusion that Afghanistan would likely be the longest campaign of what we then called the long war. It was clear even then - at a time of relatively low levels of violence - that the numerous challenges facing Afghanistan would preclude rapid progress.
Having said that, we should note that in a number of areas Afghanistan has made enormous progress over the last nine years - progress that has laid an important foundation for the future.
That is especially true when it comes to investing in human capital - to giving the next generation of Afghans the tools and opportunities they need for the future. Since the Taliban fell, school enrollment has jumped from less than a million to more than 6 million - and more than a third of those students are females. This has led to a remarkable surge in literacy: for children between the ages of 12 and 16, an estimated 37 percent of girls and 62 percent of boys are literate.
In response to the need for medical services, the international community has helped to build a rudimentary health-care system where virtually none existed before. Around 85 percent of the population can now reach some type of health-care facility within an hour.
Development is especially noticeable in many of the main population centers. Consider Kabul City and its environs. In 2001, there were reportedly less than 1 million people in the capital region. Today there are more than 5 million - nearly one-sixth of the entire population of Afghanistan - living in relative security (even as insurgents continue to plan high-profile attacks against the capital), opening businesses, attending schools and colleges, building brightly lit wedding halls, and investing in their futures. Afghan governance oversees all aspects of the province, and Afghan forces are in the lead in all but one district of Kabul. Several other major urban centers are thriving similarly, chief among them Herat City and Mazar-e-Sharif.
The kind of infrastructure built in and around Kabul also extends to other parts of the country. Cell phones are ubiquitous, with some twelve and a half million customers compared to only a handful in 2001. Electricity has changed the lives of more than four and a half million Afghans who now have access to the national grid - triple the number from 2003. The impressive development of a national network of paved and improved roads has dramatically reduced travel times and led to increasing trade within Afghanistan and with its neighbors.
Other international ventures are proving Afghanistan's economic viability, with investment in everything from gold mining to software development to mass communications. And the government of Afghanistan is pursuing trade initiatives and infrastructure projects - as evidenced by the recent transit trade agreement with Pakistan and a natural-gas pipeline deal with Turkmenistan, Pakistan, and India. Indeed, since 2003, GDP has more than tripled from $4 billion to more than $13 billion.
All of this is supporting the establishment of local businesses that have an immediate and direct impact on the Afghan people. Some 450,000 Afghans - mostly women - have taken advantage of micro-loans. Recently, a cotton factory opened in Central Helmand that can employ up to 400 people and will process an estimated 4,000 tons of cotton this year, serving thousands of local farmers. And soon, for the first time in more than 30 years, Afghanistan will export raisins to the UK - to be sold under the Fairtrade brand. From minerals to agriculture, Afghanistan is just beginning to tap its natural resources.
These changes do not go unnoticed by the Afghan people. More than 5 million Afghan refugees have returned home over the last nine years. And even today, 70 percent of Afghans believe that their children will live in a peaceful and secure Afghanistan.
What is most remarkable is that all of this has occurred despite the high levels of violence that we are only now able to address with adequate military forces. Indeed, as we look at the mission going forward, this kind of progress will become increasingly important as we help our Afghan partners build a sovereign, self-sustaining Afghanistan that can provide for its own security.
Of course, no one should have any illusions about how difficult the fight will continue to be as we and our Afghan partners strive to bring peace to a nation that has suffered through more than 30 years of continuous war. Still, I believe that we now have the right strategy in place. The kind of development we've seen, the ongoing efforts to establish an effective government, and the hard-fought but steady security gains all provide grounds to believe that our efforts in Afghanistan can achieve progress and, over time together with the Afghan people, can enable accomplishment of our important objectives there.'Event manager: Sabrina Downey