In 2010, numbers of U.S. troops and civilians, allied trainers and combat forces, Afghan army and police trainees all increased, he said, while the Taliban lost momentum in parts of the south and in the east.
“I’m particularly delighted to report that the National Military Academy of Afghanistan just completed its selection process for the class of 2015,” Mullen said, “accepting more than 600 cadets from a record 4,600 applicants — all through a process that was fair, merit-based and completely transparent.”
Afghan forces are joining coalition troops in “ever-more-challenging, ever-more-partnered operations that continue to weaken the insurgency,” the chairman added.
Mullen told the group that a visit to Kandahar and Helmand provinces in recent weeks demonstrated to him that insurgents are being pushed from population centers and denied sanctuary while losing leaders “by the score.” Afghan residents are taking back their villages, building schools and roads and harvesting alternative crops, all of which contribute to “a growing sense of safety” in those regions, he added.
The chairman admitted to some surprise at seeing increased security take root around Kandahar, where “the enemy is not accustomed to losing.” He said he is confident such gains will continue “so long as coalition and Afghan forces increase their presence and their pressure on [insurgent] operations, and improve their own capacity.”
Now is the time to press the advantages gained in Afghanistan and to redouble efforts there, he said.
“We know the gains we have made are tenuous and fragile, and can be lost,” Mullen said. “We know the enemy is resilient. And we know that things are likely to get harder before they get any easier.”
A relatively mild winter that has encouraged continued insurgent fighting will give way to spring, Mullen said, and with 100,000 more coalition and Afghan forces on the ground than last year, “we will expand our presence into areas the enemy still wishes to control.”
“As difficult as it may be to accept, we must prepare ourselves for more violence and more casualties in coming months,” the chairman said. “The violence will be worse in 2011 than it was in 2010 in many parts of Afghanistan. There is much, much yet to do.”
Over the long term, he said, the United States and coalition nations must work to support an Afghan political process that includes reconciliation with those Taliban members who break with al-Qaida, renounce violence and accept the Afghan constitution.
With U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan set to start decreasing in July and given the goal of fully transferring security to Afghan forces by 2014, the United States must continue to build a strategic partnership with Afghanistan, the chairman said.
“Our military presence will diminish, as it should,” he said. “But the partnership between our two nations will endure.”
Mullen said Pakistan’s role in ensuring regional security remains critical. The recent assassination of Punjab Gov. Salmaan Taseer and the departure and return of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement to Pakistan’s ruling coalition government highlight some of the political challenges that country faces, he said.
“That political aspect is something I keep an eye on all the time,” the chairman said.
Pakistan is crucial to eliminating terrorist safe havens in the region, he said.
“We cannot succeed in Afghanistan without that,” said Mullen, noting he has had “many meetings” with Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Pakistan’s army chief of staff, on the topic.
“He has evolved his military against this threat, and this threat is evolving as well,” Mullen said of Kayani’s anti-terrorism strategy. “It’s not just Haqqani any more, or al-Qaida, or … the Afghan Taliban or [Lashkar-e-Tayyiba], it’s all of them working together, in ways that two years ago they absolutely did not.”
The reconciliation process, Mullen said, is focused on “getting to a point where Afghanistan is peaceful and stable, and can take control of its own life and move forward, in every respect.”
Safe havens in Pakistan now form the epicenter of terrorism in the world, the chairman said.
“It deserves the attention of everybody to do as much as we can to eliminate that threat,” Mullen said. “We cannot succeed in Afghanistan without … shutting down those safe havens.”
I played highlights of the Foreign Press Center event on the show today; you can watch the entire event below.