Afghanistan Coalition Continues Progress as Elections Near
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jun. 17, 2004 Afghanistan "is no longer a sanctuary for terrorists, a place where they can train in safety and comfort," and coalition forces are working to increase security in the region and pave the way for the upcoming national elections, the commander of Combined Forces Command Afghanistan said today.
Speaking with Pentagon reporters via teleconference from the Afghan capital of Kabul, Army Lt. Gen. David Barno cited continued progress in weeding out remnants of Taliban and al Qaeda forces.
Operation Mountain Storm, which kicked off in early spring, is making steady progress in areas where both organizations have deep roots and long-term footholds, he said.
During recent weeks alone, the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit and the Afghan National Army and other Afghan government forces have conducted what Barno called "a decisive fight" against Taliban fighters in northern Zabul province. Operating in this traditional Taliban heartland, coalition forces killed more than 80 terrorists, captured others and seized weapons and ammunition caches, he said.
Meanwhile, Pakistan has become a key partner in combating terrorism along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, mounting what Barno called "the most robust" operations ever conducted to rid the tribal areas of terrorist threats. Some 10,000 members of the Pakistani military are using attack helicopters and fighter jets to take out terrorist targets, "pressing forward with tremendous resolution," Barno said.
Working cooperatively, coalition forces continue to focus not only on finding terrorist leaders and bringing them to justice, but also in taking down their networks, Barno said.
"I think al Qaeda and its network are under tremendous pressure here," he said. "And we will continue to squeeze them as we operate effectively on both sides of the border with some very significant combat operations."
The result, he said, is that terrorists no longer are able to launch major military attacks against coalition or Afghan forces. "Terrorists are becoming increasing wary of taking on (the coalition) because when they do, the terrorists come out second best," Barno said.
This has driven terrorist remnants to attack so-called "soft targets" in the area. "Their recourse has been to mount cowardly attacks against innocent civilians, aid workers and non-governmental organizations," Barno said. "They hope to intimidate the Afghan people. And in this, too, they are failing."
In light of this progress, Barno said the coalition still has challenges ahead. These include expanding the capability of local government, eliminating narcotics, demobilizing regional military forces, expanding the NATO presence and continuing Afghanistan's reconstruction.
Later this month, the coalition will reach a milestone in Afghanistan with the establishment of the 15th provincial reconstruction team compared to four just one year ago. These teams, Barno said, will help provide the security framework for the upcoming elections while continuing efforts to rebuild Afghanistan.
Barno said he has great optimism in the Afghan people's commitment to working through the challenges ahead as they embrace their newfound democracy. He cited extensive voter registration efforts throughout the country in preparing for the elections.
"The Afghan people are not swayed from their commitment to realize the vision of democracy that they are so readily embracing here across the country," Barno said. "They remain courageous and committed to their democratic future."
As the elections approach and the likelihood of terrorist attacks by "those bitter few" who wish to return Afghanistan "back to the dark days of terror and tyranny," Barno said the coalition will stand firmly beside the Afghan people.
"The coalition military here will continue to work to set conditions for the upcoming historic elections," he said. "In conjunction with the Afghan National Army, the national police, NATO's International Security Assistance Force and local leaders and elders, the coalition will do its part to ensure that the right of the Afghan people to freely choose their leaders will not be stolen."