General Reflects on Accomplishments in Afghanistan
By John Valceanu
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 14, 2005 The general who led Combined Joint Task Force 76 in Afghanistan for the past year reflected on his unit's accomplishments and challenges, even as he prepared to transfer authority to incoming forces on March 15.
U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Eric T. Olson, commander of CJTF 76 and of the 25th Infantry Division, said during a phone interview March 11 that he has seen "tremendous progress" since his forces took over the mission in Afghanistan.
The progress can be categorized into several broad areas, according to Olson, including success in counterinsurgency operations.
"When we came here, we were making regular contacts, and a lot of those contacts were initiated on the terms of the enemy," Olson said. "Now, over the course of 11 months or so, we have dramatically changed the nature of the insurgency itself. There are many fewer contacts now, and the contacts that we do make are pretty much all terminated on conditions favorable to the coalition."
There are a number of indicators that the insurgency is on the decline. In addition to a decrease in insurgent activity, the number of former Taliban fighters who are willing to put down their weapons and "be part of the solution as opposed to part of the problem" has increased, according to Olson.
Another area where Olson said the coalition has accomplished "major progress" is in the realm of reconstruction. Afghanistan and its people suffered through decades of strife, both civil conflict and war waged against Soviet Union forces, before a U.S.-led coalition entered the country in October 2001.
At that time, the coalition acted to remove the repressive Taliban regime that harbored the al Qaeda terrorist network, which was behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Since then, according to Olson, coalition forces have been helping to improve the lives of the Afghan people and to create conditions that promote stability and security.
"We've opened several provincial reconstruction teams. The ones that were open when we came here are much more robust. ... We can really see that there have been some positive steps taken in economic reconstruction and development," Olson said, adding that currently under way are "lots of projects that are going to grow and provide employment and opportunity for the Afghan people."
These projects, according to Olson, will have "long-term positive effects" on Afghanistan's economy an on the nation itself.
The formation of Afghan democratic institutions is another area of definite progress, and it is in this area where Olson said the "signs of progress have been most visible."
Olson said that for him as well as for many of the troops serving in the country, one of the high points was the successful Afghan presidential election held Oct. 9, 2004.
"They had democratic elections for the first time in 5,000 years. That's a pretty historic kind of event," Olson said. "And there are other signs that the democratic process is moving forward. We are moving in the direction of national assembly elections. The momentum in that direction is irreversible."
The development of security institutions is another area where Olson said he thinks Afghan institutions have made significant progress. He said that the Afghan National Army is "a huge success," and Afghan soldiers, in units up to battalion size, are operating alongside coalition forces throughout Afghanistan.
The Afghan National Police has also made progress, and the development of Afghanistan's police force is "moving in the right direction," according to Olson, with the help and guidance of coalition personnel.
Though Olson said progress is visible "everywhere throughout the operational area," he added that there are still challenges that must be overcome in the future in order to ensure that the insurgents are eliminated and conditions are put in place that deny the use of Afghan territory to terrorists.
"We have to continue to keep pressure on the enemy. We still have attacks. The enemy has seen that attacks on the coalition have been pretty fruitless, but there are places where now he has turned to attacking the population," Olson said. "We are continuing to improve the security of the population, and that is going to come with better police forces and continued strengthening of the ANA."
Olson said that the counter-narcotics effort is another area that will require emphasis in the future.
"There has been a lot of Afghan-led eradication of poppy fields and other critical points in the chain of production of narcotics, but we certainly haven't won that fight by any means," Olson said. "I think that continued effort in that area is something that needs to happen."
A prime indicator that efforts are moving in the right direction, according to Olson, is the partnership that the coalition has been able to establish with Afghan security forces, and with the Afghan people.
"I think we've seen, over the course of the 12 months, a pretty dramatic improvement in the attitude of the people toward the coalition effort and toward their government," Olson said.
For all the progress made over the past year, Olson said that he is "enormously proud" not only of the soldiers in his own division, but also of the members of other U.S. armed forces and troops of other coalition nations supporting the global war on terrorism in Afghanistan.
"All these accomplishments are the result of the great work of a team that is over here," Olson said. The team consists of U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, working with forces from more than 20 coalition nations. "They've been absolutely tremendous," the general said.
As Olson and his soldiers of the 25th Infantry Division return to their home base of Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, they are being replaced by members of the Southern European Task Force and its paratroopers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, deploying from Vicenza, Italy.