This morning's hearing is the first in our annual series of posture hearings with the combatant commanders to receive testimony on the military strategy and operational requirements in their areas of responsibility. Our witnesses are two extraordinary military leaders, General James Mattis, Commander, U.S. Central Command, and Admiral Bill McRaven, Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command. On behalf of our Members, please pass along to the military men and women serving in both CENTCOM and SOCOM our sincere gratitude for their dedication and sacrifices. We also thank their families, whose support is so essential to the wellbeing of their loved ones and of their nation.
General Mattis, this is your third and last posture hearing before this committee. This committee has favorably reported out your successor, General Lloyd Austin, to the full Senate. General, thank you for your more than 40 years of military service and your distinguished leadership of our armed forces.
This year's posture hearings with the combatant commanders are being held under the specter of budget sequestration, which threatens to impose arbitrary cuts on our military forces unrelated to our national security requirements. Already, sequestration is having an operational impact in the CENTCOM area, with the Defense Department's postponement of the deployment of the USS Harry S Truman aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf. I hope General Mattis and Admiral McRaven will address the impacts and risks associated with sequestration and the expiration of the Continuing Resolution.
Our transition strategy in Afghanistan is entering a critical phase in the coming months. Afghan forces will move into the lead for security throughout Afghanistan beginning this spring. This transition has been underway for some time, and Afghan forces are already in charge of security for more than 85 percent of the Afghan people. This shift to an Afghan security lead is exemplified by the statistic that in 2012, Afghan forces for the first time suffered more casualties than coalition forces. As Afghan security forces are stepping up, coalition forces are shifting to a support role, deploying Security Force Assistance Teams to advise and assist Afghan units through the end of 2014, when the ISAF mission ends. ISAF casualties are down, and during a one-month stretch from mid-January to mid-February of this year ISAF forces suffered no fatalities.
It seems that bad news out of Afghanistan is splashed across the headlines, while good news barely makes a ripple. The press gave wide coverage in December to the Defense Department report that found only one of 23 Afghan brigades was rated as independent by ISAF. Yet when Senator Reed and I visited Afghanistan in January and talked to our regional commanders, we learned that Afghan forces in the volatile and critical east, have been successfully conducting over 85% of operations unilaterally, without coalition forces present. Afghans want their own forces providing for their security, and they have confidence in those forces. General Mattis, the Committee would be interested in your assessment of whether our mission in Afghanistan is succeeding, whether our transition plan is on track and whether the Afghan forces will be ready this spring to assume the lead for protecting the Afghan people throughout the country.
Last month President Obama announced plans for withdrawing, by February of next year, 34,000 of the 66,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. As important as the size of the cuts in U.S. troop levels over the coming year is the pace of those reductions. The President has previously stated that cuts in U.S. forces would continue at a steady pace after the recovery of the U.S. surge force at the end of last summer. It is now being reported that the bulk of the withdrawal of the 34,000 troops is likely to occur next winter, after the 2013 fighting season. We need to understand what the pace of U.S. troop withdrawal will look like, and how it fits with the overall transition strategy.
Looking ahead, significant challenges in Afghanistan remain. Fundamental to the country's stability will be a demonstrated commitment by the United States and the international community to an enduring relationship with Afghanistan. I am encouraged by reports that NATO defense ministers recently reconsidered plans to cut Afghan security forces by a third after 2014 and are now considering maintaining those forces at 352,000 at least through 2018. That sends an important signal of commitment to the Afghan people, to the Taliban, and to Afghanistan's neighbors. Pakistan needs to recognize that an unstable Afghanistan is not in its interests, and Pakistan's continuing failure to address the safe havens for insurgents conducting cross-border attacks into Afghanistan will make it impossible for the United States to have a normal relationship with Pakistan. In addition, the Government of Afghanistan needs to address its failure to deliver services and the rampant corruption that undermine the Afghan people's faith in governmental institutions.
The CENTCOM AOR also presents other vexing challenges. Iran's continued pursuit of its nuclear program is one of the most significant national security issues of the day. I believe most of the members of this Committee share President Obama's view that all options -- including military options -- need to remain on the table and that preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon is not only our policy, but that we are determined to achieve it.
Iran is also actively expanding their threat network that has promoted violence across the region in Yemen, Gaza, Sudan, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere. Iran continues to provide financial and materiel support through the Revolutionary Guard and Lebanese Hezbollah to groups seeking to overthrow or undermine governments and terrorize innocent civilians. General Mattis and Admiral McRaven, you are the two Commanders most involved in confronting these current challenges and planning for contingencies involving Iran. We look forward to hearing your views on these matters.
In Syria, the death toll continues to rise daily. The mass atrocities committed by the Assad regime over the past two years have solidified the commitment of all but a few in the international community that the required outcome in Syria is that Assad must go. The United States is the largest contributor of non-lethal and humanitarian aid to the international response efforts, but these contributions have not been enough. General Mattis, the committee looks forward to hearing your views on the situation in Syria and to learn of what our closest allies in the region say about the possibility of extending additional aid to the rebels.
The committee is also interested in both commanders' reactions to recent reports about U.S. counterterrorism operations and whether more of these counterterrorism operations should be conducted under Title 10 authorities. For example, Secretary Panetta said recently "the advantage to it is that it becomes much more transparent in terms of what we're doing." John Brennan, at his recent confirmation hearing to be Director of the CIA, stated "the CIA should not be doing traditional military activities and operations" and noted that "on the counterterrorism front, there are things that the agency has been involved in since 9/11 that, in fact, have been a bit of an aberration from its traditional role."
Beyond the current conflict in Afghanistan and the fight against Al Qaeda and its affiliates elsewhere, Admiral McRaven has spent significant time developing his vision for the future of special operations. In light of the continuing high demand for special operations forces throughout the world and the focus of last year's Defense Strategic Guidance on "innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint approaches" to achieve national security objectives, Admiral McRaven his rightly focused on the need to develop greater capabilities within our special operations forces to engage with partner nation forces with the goal of confronting mutual security challenges before they become threats to the U.S. or our interests overseas -- what he calls the "enhancing the global special operations network." Admiral McRaven, the committee looks forward to hearing more about any changes to existing authorities that you believe would help you to be more effective in these areas.
Our special operations personnel and their families continue to face the highest operational tempo in their history. I understand SOCOM has documented the negative impact of these repeated, high-stress deployments, including an increase in marital problems, substance abuse, and suicides, and now has a standing task force dedicated to helping special operators and their families deal with these issues. Admiral McRaven, the committee would appreciate your assessment of state of your forces and the adequacy of the support provided by the military services and SOCOM to address the unique challenges in the special operations community.