Also see Deputy Assistant Secretary Sumar's statement.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman, members of the committee. And thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today to discuss the future of Afghanistan beyond 2014. In particular, I'd like to thank the members of this committee for your continued support for this mission.
The American people have been generous, steadfast and brave in supporting Afghanistan. And I would join the chairman in calling attention to the memories of the three American citizens killed last week at the Cure International Hospital in Kabul. And not only them, but to the dedication of thousands of Americans – women and men -- who have served in our armed forces, in our diplomatic outposts and our assistance programs in Afghanistan.
The investments we have made in Afghanistan have paid important and underreported dividends. We began this mission in late 2001 to prevent Afghanistan from again being used to launch attacks against us. As part of an international coalition of more than 50 nations, we have helped make the world more secure. Our mission now is to make these gains sustainable by handing over to and supporting increasingly capable Afghan institutions. As we approach the end of the ISAF mission and the beginnings of the political transition to a new Afghan government, I would like to describe evidence that Afghan institutions are precisely that -- increasingly capable and sustainable -- and to outline the challenges that those institutions now face and the ways in which we and our partners can and intend to continue to help them to overcome those challenges.
Afghan confidence, and ours, begins with the performance of the Afghan National Security Forces -- the most highly regarded institution in Afghanistan. The Afghan National Security Force has progressed from supporting ISAF operations to conducting them jointly, to leading complex operations with ISAF support, and finally in June of last year to taking over the lead for security throughout the country. Since June of last year, they have held their own against the insurgents and have successfully planned and carried out a highly complex effort to protect polls and voters on Election Day, thwarting Taliban attempts to disrupt the first round of the elections.
The electoral process to date is further reason for measured confidence in Afghanistan's future. For the first time in their history on April 5th, Afghans led every component of the electoral process: The security forces provided the security; the electoral bodies planned and administered the process, meeting every -- nearly every deadline throughout the calendar. And Afghan media provided platforms for reasoned debate about policy and generally avoided inflammatory rhetoric. Afghan political elites formed multi-ethnic tickets and campaigned all across the country. And most importantly, enthusiasm for the democratic process and hope for their future brought millions of to the polls, despite bad weather and, of course, Taliban threats.
Similarly, Afghan electoral bodies have responded appropriately to allegations of fraud. Afghan youth, civil society groups and women all played critical roles in the elections. The involvement of Afghan women in the elections in particular is a sign of a shift in attitude towards women nationwide. And as Secretary Kerry said in his speech at Georgetown last year: If I had to walk blind into a district in Afghanistan and could only ask one question to determine how secure it was and how much progress it was making, I would ask, what proportion of the girls here are able to go to school?
There is no question investing in Afghan women is the surest way to guarantee that Afghanistan will sustain the gains of the last decade and never again be a safe haven for international terrorists. Sustaining progress through 2014 depends on the continued growth of Afghanistan's governance and security institutions and continued support by the international community for a sovereign, stable, unified and democratic Afghanistan. Our assistance programs through the period of transition will remain focused on building the capacity of Afghan institutions to sustain the gains of the last decade, including continued support for Afghan women.
Let me single out three factors in particular that can contribute to sustaining progress in Afghanistan. The first, of course, already mentioned is the Bilateral Security Agreement, which could allow a limited, post-2014 mission focused on training, advising and assisting Afghan security forces and going after the remnants of core al-Qaida.
Second, the government of Afghanistan needs to enact policies that will empower the private sector to grow the Afghan economy to make up for decreases in international assistance and to provide jobs for its large population of youth, increase government revenues to overcome the current fiscal gap between revenues and expenditures.
Regional integration, the third factor, will also improve Afghanistan's economic prospects. And in particular, I would call attention to the Istanbul Process, an Afghan launched and led mechanism from November 2011, which represents a step forward in terms of dialogue and cooperation between Afghanistan and its neighbors. The United States has been in Afghanistan for 13 years; we have invested billions of dollars, and nearly 2,200 of our servicemen and women have sacrificed their lives so that extremists who attacked us on September 11th will not again threaten American territory, our citizens, or our allies from Afghan soil. Under President Obama, U.S. strategy and that of our international partners has aimed at strengthening Afghan institutions so that the Afghan government and people can provide for their own security, grow their own economy and manage their own internal and external affairs.
The common element in all three of these transitions -- security, economic, and political -- has been the gradual and responsible transfer of leadership to Afghan hands. That remains our approach and it is working.