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Officials Encouraged by Afghan Progress

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 4, 2003 – While Iraq is the central front of the war on terrorism, Afghanistan is a crucial theater also, DoD officials said today.

More than 9,800 American service members continue to serve in Afghanistan, a place that Pentagon officials stress is still dangerous.

An American Special Forces soldier was killed while operating with Afghan militia forces in Helmand province Oct. 30. The patrol made contact with a 10- to 15-member anti-coalition element. Coalition officials said the patrol engaged in a six-hour firefight and had to call in close- air support. After the enemy broke off action, the U.S. soldier died of his wounds.

The number of American troops will remain fairly constant. Pentagon officials expect the numbers to creep up as the next rotation of U.S. personnel into the country begins, but then settle back to the current number as troops rotate home.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld likes to contrast the effectiveness of coalition troops today with the Soviet invasion of 1978. Rumsfeld said that the Soviets had 300,000 troops in Afghanistan and were battled to a standstill and eventually forced to leave.

The United States has just under 10,000 troops in the nation, and the coalition is making visible progress.

The enemy is confusing, Pentagon officials said, and like Iraq, different sections of the country have different security needs.

The Taliban make up the majority of the anti-coalition forces. The group's stronghold is with the Pashtu-dominated areas along the country's border with Pakistan. Kandahar, Paktia and Paktika provinces are particular problems for coalition troops.

The coalition and Pakistan are working together to eliminate Taliban sanctuaries along the borders. However, this is hampered by the fact that the border is one of the most mountainous areas on Earth. The topography is riddled with caves that the Taliban and their al Qaeda allies have expanded and connected.

News reports talk about the Taliban "reconstituting" itself and attacking coalition forces. Pentagon officials said the Taliban groups are small. "Generally, a large group may have 20 to 25 members," said an official. "The Taliban are not moving to an area and refitting in the normal sense of the word. They are on the run and surviving on what they've squirreled away in the past."

Coalition forces continue to pursue anti-coalition forces. Operation Mountain Viper, begun Sept. 4 in the eastern mountains of Afghanistan, is still underway. An enhanced brigade and stand-by close-air support work together to kill and capture the anti-coalition forces and to deny them sanctuary.

But the anti-coalition forces situation in Afghanistan is complicated. Afghans have loyalty to tribes and to provincial and area warlords. Some of these warlords pay lip service to the central government headed by interim President Hamid Karzai and then do whatever they want in their areas.

Other warlords support the government, but do not get along with neighboring warlords. The quality of the forces the warlords maintain is hugely uneven, said Pentagon officials. Some warlords maintain semi-trained and disciplined forces. Others have ragtag groups that are little better than bandits.

The Afghan National Army is a response to that problem. American and French special operations forces train the army, which is an amalgam of the Afghan ethnic groups. Pashtuns serve with Uzbeks, who serve with Tajiks, and so on. The units are disciplined and local Afghans realize the army will not steal from them. The ANA is much in demand in the country, and the coalition is working to speed training and deployment of the forces.

Two years after the coalition effort that drove the Taliban from power and put the al Qaeda terror group to flight, conditions in Afghanistan are improving. Coalition forces have built or rebuilt schools, they have provided public health aid, and they have provided food and shelter to millions of Afghans returning to their country after years of exile.

The approval of an $87 billion supplemental bill by Congress means that the progress will continue in Afghanistan. More than $1.5 billion will go to fund major infrastructure projects in Afghanistan.

The security situation is improving in the country, said Pentagon officials. This does not mean there won't be reverses in the future attacks could happen at any moment. But the trends are up and U.S. officials are encouraged by the progress.

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