The war in Afghanistan has dragged on for nearly a decade in large part because Washington has employed a strategy that necessitated a "hard slog," America's top general said Tuesday.
"It's taking so long because we're trying to do it right," Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey told a forum in Washington.
Dempsey's description of "doing it right" means U.S. officials have insisted on building government institutions and security forces that can make Afghanistan a self-sufficient nation after U.S. and NATO forces leave in 2014.
The other option when U.S. forces were first deployed there in late 2001 was to go after Taliban and al Qaeda forces with so much indiscriminate force that the nation would have been leveled.
"That's not who we are," Dempsey said as President Obama was landing in Kabul on a secret trip to sign a U.S.-Afghan long-term security pact. Obama is slated to address the nation at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday from Bagram Air Base, just outside Kabul.
Obama's secretive trip and Dempsey's assessment of the U.S. strategy came on the same day the Pentagon released its latest report on the Afghan conflict. That assessment pointed to progress with things like building Afghanistan's military, but it also bluntly states "acute" challenges remain.
"The mission in Afghanistan ... faces long-term challenges. The insurgency draws strength from safe haven and support from within Pakistan and garners popular support by exploiting areas where the Afghan government has failed to provide sufficient governance, rule of law, and economic opportunities," the Pentagon report states. "Afghan government progress toward key governance and development initiatives remains critical for the sustainability of security gains."
Dempsey called the U.S.-Pakistani relationship among the most complicated of Washington's many global partnerships, saying he is concerned about "a lot of misunderstandings and mistrust."
U.S. officials have been "up front" with their Pakistani counterparts about the ongoing ability of Taliban, al Qaeda and other groups to set up shop in northwest Pakistan near the Afghan border. From there, they are able to plan and train for operations to thwart Washington's efforts in Afghanistan.
U.S. commanders have made clear they want Pakistan to do more to take out these anti-Western elements, and that a major campaign against them will unfold over the next few months in eastern Afghanistan.
"As a result of insurgent safe havens within Pakistan ... as well as financial and operational support from various outside sources," states the Pentagon report, "the security situation in eastern Afghanistan remains volatile."